Young, motivated, and a natural leader. SOLGM recently named biosecurity manager Kane McElrea as the Brookfields Emerging Leader of the Year for 2020. By Mary Searle Bell
Kane McElrea developed an affinity with the land growing up in rural Auckland. As a child, he lived on a sheep and beef farm in Wainui, and his family had a dairy farm in Helensville, selling up and moving to town when he was a teen. By then, however, his heart was with nature and a career working with the environment was inevitable.
After finishing school, he studied marine science in the Bay of Plenty. However, once he finished his diploma, he chose to continue studying, completing an environmental degree through AUT.
During the summer holidays, Kane snared a coveted position with the Auckland Regional Council as a student ranger. He was posted to Tauwharanui Regional Park, northeast of Warkworth.
“It’s an open sanctuary with a predator fence. But it also has a surf beach as well as excellent fishing and diving,” says Kane.
“I lived on site in the volunteer house and worked alongside another student ranger and three full time rangers.
“Tauwharanui is a working farm with sheep and cattle, and because of my background, I was heavily involved in the stock work. It was an awesome three months.
“They obviously liked me because they asked me to stay on.”
Kane’s first fulltime job was that of sector ranger, covering all regional parks in northern Auckland, from Long Bay on the city’s north shore, all the way up to Atiu Creek near Warkworth.
“That role gave me a load more experience and introduced me to a number of different people.
“I saw myself potentially sticking with it but as I was waiting for my contract to be renewed, I saw the advertisement for a biosecurity officer with the Northland Regional Council.
“I was lucky to get an interview and managed to secure the job.
To Kane’s surprise, he was a young’un in the team, with most staff having at least 20 years’ experience and some as many as 40 years in the job.
“The combined experience and knowledge in the team was huge,” he says. “Working under these people set me up for where I am today – they provided me with the tools and techniques of how I work and have been good mentors.
“My current boss, Don Mackenzie, is outstanding. His style of leadership is less directive and offers an opportunity to grow. He encourages me to go out and do things.”
While his experience at Tauwharanui provided a good base, Kane says biosecurity is a bigger and broader beast, and his role at Northland Regional Council is less hands-on and more advisory.
“I work a lot with community-led groups,” he says.
“The community sees value in biosecurity and pest control and the council is very proactive in this space.
“We are lucky in Northland to have the iconic kiwi to protect. It drives initiatives and gets locals involved.”
Kane says the council can see the wins the biosecurity team is having with the community, and they get some “awesome feedback” from the locals.
After four years as a biosecurity officer, Kane moved up to biosecurity manager, taking on the kauri dieback programme and Kai Iwi Lakes project among others.
At this time, a change in the way council operated its programmes was introduced, with great results.
“Previously, the council invested in programmes upfront, leaving it to tail off when the funds ran out. This wasn’t sustainable for long-term results.
“A key change came with a project to restore the kiwi population at Whangarei Heads by way of predator control. I had to present to council, asking them to guarantee funding for five years on this project, which was a deviation from our policy at the time.
“It was close – we got it through with one or two votes – but it has changed the way we work for the better.
“Now, with newly introduced programmes, our new model sees the community decide where funds are spent. We help set up community pest control working groups, sitting on them as a partner, and the groups decide where they can get best value for our biosecurity money.”
Kane relished his position as programme manager and over the past six years the role has grown considerably as he has taken on more challenges.
“I guess it’s one of my weaknesses, I can’t say no.
“But I enjoy the challenge of something new.”
By the end of last year, a significant portion of the council’s biosecurity programme came through Kane.
“It was a crazy time,” he says.
The council decided to restructure, realising some of their biosecurity programmes, such as kauri dieback and feral deer control, needed their own managers.
“We’re focusing on becoming predator-free. Recently, we successfully applied for funding from Predator Free 2050 to help us achieve this.”
Complementing his work, Kane has been involved in the regional sector special interest group in biosecurity. This working group is a collective of biosecurity managers from around the country, coming together in a collaborative way to address common issues.
“It’s a collective voice for the sector.”
It also provides invaluable networking opportunities for those involved.
“I can phone anyone around the country and get the info I need really quickly. If I have an issue, I can send it out to the working group knowing I’ll get 10 ideas really quickly.
“Or, if someone comes to me with a query, I can say ‘talk to this person’ knowing they’ll have the answer.”
One of the tasks Kane and the working group supported was the development of a Biosecurity Act Enforcement Manual. This guide sets out how to enforce the Act and ensures that all regional councils around the country are working in a similar way.
“While the Act sets out what must be done, it doesn’t specify how,” he explains.
“This manual provides guidance.”
Recently, Kane stepped up to convene the group, and he says the experience of working alongside DOC and MPI at a strategic level has been extremely valuable.
Working at this level suits him – he’s always been confident, outspoken, and comfortable in leadership roles.
This natural skill has been honed with leadership training through SOLGM. Nevertheless, the Brookfields Emerging Leader Award came as a surprise.
“It’s a huge honour,” he says.
“It’s fantastic that other people have seen my potential.
“I can see myself working more in leadership in the future. I like the idea of working in a national space, with central government and other agencies.
“But, there’s no rush. There are lots of opportunities to experience in Northland first. It’s a really interesting time to be working in local government and environmental policy, and while it’s hectic at times. I love my job.”
And as he’s only 31 years old, time is on Kane’s side. LG