Dingoes date back thousands of years in Australia, but in the ACT they are also considered a pest. Now a researcher is trying to better classify them

dingoes date back thousands of years in australia, but in the act they are also considered a pest. now a researcher is trying to better classify them

Dingoes in Namadgi National Park are known for their distinctive coats. (Supplied: Tony Clark)

Think of a dingo and you may be first reminded of places such as K'gari or Australia's red centre, where they are an iconic part of the landscape.

But what some may not realise is that dingoes also exist within the borders of the national capital.

They are a species that has captivated researcher James Vandersteen, who is doing a PhD on their numbers and behaviour, and who has been exploring the national park at Canberra's doorstep to try to find them.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there's at least a couple of hundred dingoes getting around in Namadgi National Park," he said.

Few animals are as controversial as the dingo.

They are celebrated by ecologists and First Nations Australians as an iconic species and an important apex predator, but also viewed as a pest by landholders for their impact on livestock.

Some pastoralists say they have "obtained significant financial gains ... and environmental benefits on our properties by maintaining dingoes" and in September, a coalition of more than 20 First Nations organisations used an open letter to call for the protection of dingoes.

Two months later, as part of a similar campaign, a dingo entered Australia's Parliament House for the first time.

According to ACT law, the dingo meets the criteria of a native species under the Nature Conservation Act 2014, but is excluded from protection due to a simultaneous listing on the Pest Plants and Animals Act 2005.

According to Mr Vandersteen, relatively little is known about dingoes in the Canberra region, other than signifying features such as their often atypical coat colours.

The ACT government doesn't exactly know how many dingoes are in the territory, but their data estimates approximately 33 dingoes have been trapped each year since 2010.

He said it was not clear what effect human behaviour, such as baiting, was having on this population.

"A lot of the attention gets put on those coastal and inland populations of dingoes; we don't know too much about what's going on in the mountains and how lethal control might affect dingo populations," he said.

Under the ACT Pest Animal Management Strategy, around 4,000 baits are poisoned with 1080 sodium fluroacetate, and placed around the National Park's periphery, near grazing land, over two five-week periods a year.

In the same "buffer zones" dingoes are also trapped, using padded-jaw legholds, and then shot. There are no current control plans in the ACT targeting feral foxes or feral cats.

"There might be potential that dingoes can help control populations of wallabies and kangaroos and, therefore, lessen the impact on grazing on native vegetation."

He is using more than 100 remote cameras operating 24/7 across the park's 5,600 hectares to track dingoes in a bid to learn more.

"There's been a lot of debate lately about what is a dingo, what is a wild dog, and how we classify them," he said.

It is possible there are more pure dingoes in the ACT region than previously thought.

That's largely due to recent studies, including genetic analysis, which have challenged assumptions underpinning regulatory frameworks nationally.

"It shows that a lot of the dingoes that are out in the wild are pretty much genetically pure dingoes," Mr Vandersteen said.

Still, while scientific attitudes are shifting, updates to policy and public opinion are more sluggish.

Earlier this year, a social media post from the National Parks Association of the ACT suggested the Namadgi dingoes, with their atypical coat colours, are particularly polarising.

It featured a photo of a black-and-white dingo in bushland that was verified by ACT Parks and Wildlife.

"That's not a dingo. But it is a domestic dog," one person commented.

"Presumably crossed with a mutt," said another.

"Doesn't look like any dingo I've seen," replied a third.

'Outdated' research on purity

Some of the ACT's dingoes have ended up in captivity.

Will Tran, a Natives Keeper at the National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra, regularly talks to visitors "about dingoes and their importance for the environment as an apex predator".

The zoo's four dingoes, with their different ecotypes – or "phenological differences due to their environmental pressures" — make ideal education aids.

Among them is Misha, a 100 per cent pure dingo who was mistaken at Namadgi for a dumped domestic dog and "rescued" by her original owners, before coming to live at the facility.

The territory's population is "described as dingo, with a small proportion of domesticated dog genes", according to the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD).

The EPSDD states that "pure dingoes cannot be distinguished from part dingoes in the field, so they are managed as a single entity – wild dogs".

This classification prompted ACT MLA Marisa Paterson to raise concerns at a select committee meeting in November, pointing to the fact that the national plan was guided by a 12-year-old map of "dingo purity areas".

"The whole bottom south-eastern end of Australia is saying very low, like under 60 per cent purity. We are included in that space," Ms Paterson said.

"Why is this plan based on such outdated research from 2011 and why are we not saying, 'actually, our dingoes are much purer here and probably in surrounding New South Wales?' This seems a very inaccurate map."

In response, Office of Nature Conservation Senior Director Rosie Cooney conceded the Canberra area was different.

"We do have a particularly pure population here," Ms Cooney said.

"[But] there is usually a bit of a gap between scientific literature making its way into the whole policy and planning process."

Chris Glennon of the EPSDD also agreed that the ACT's management strategies were "blind to the genetics".

The government said it did not believe its management strategy was unsustainably impacting the ACT dingo population.

"We believe that our [baiting] program is reasonably conservative," Mr Glennon said.

"It is over a limited period for … conservation purposes and things like that.

"The relatively stable average number indicates the population has been able to remain at a level substantially above the numbers trapped ... this may be a result of breeding and/or immigration from New South Wales."

Management into the future

The ACT's Rural Landholders Association has also called for the government to investigate just how many dingoes there are.

In a statement, the group said the dingoes "kill and maim sheep throughout the year", impacting farmers financially.

The group said the EPSDD was working more proactively with farmers and contractors in response to "unacceptably high stock losses in recent months".

But they said "a lot more needs to be done to find cost effective science-based solutions".

Mr Vandersteen said managing "problem populations or individual dingoes … on a case-by-case basis" would be a better strategy than "blanket control".

Will Tran agreed, noting non-lethal control methods were being trialled elsewhere.

"It's about celebrating the biodiversity in our ecosystem," Mr Tran said.

"There's great work being done in Newcastle, just north of there – [for example] the Myall Lakes Dingo Project."

It includes "biologically-relevant" tools, which mimic the animal's existing communication methods, like territorial scent marking and vocalisations.

"Perhaps using some urine [in a particular area] that might make them move away … or producing sounds all throughout the environment that may deter dingoes from going in that area," Mr Tran said.

"Myall Lakes is similar to Namadgi, in that there's somewhat of a co-existence between humans and dingoes. It's demonstrating how we can live cohesively."

In Victoria's north-west, where the dingo population is on the brink of extinction, farmers are being supported "to adopt alternative non-lethal control methods via a pilot of measures such as exclusion fencing and guardian animals".

Permits are available for lethal control, in cases "where livestock are being significantly impacted and there are no other options".

The ACT government is under pressure to make status and strategy changes, after the select committee's final report recommended it "re-classify ACT government documentation to replace the terminology of 'wild dog' with 'dingo' to accurately reflect the genetic make-up of the ACT's population".

"We're actually finalising … research right now, so I am waiting for advice in terms of confirming the genetics of our population," ACT Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti said.

"That may potentially trigger … some changes in terms of our management of it."

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