Around 150 hunters will gather tomorrow ahead of what’s been dubbed “the hunt of a lifetime” – stalking wild wapiti deer in the remote Fiordland National Park.

The hunters will first meet for the fourth and final briefing of this year’s wapiti hunting season, the Wapiti Foundation said today.

Wapiti Foundation spokesman Roy Sloan said the briefing “covers their responsibilities to themselves, the environment, other hunting parties and the wapiti herd”.

The wapiti, also known as North American Elk, were introduced to the country after a herd donated by then US President Theodore Roosevelt was released at the head of George Sound in 1905.

This year’s culling operation comes as Forest and Bird last Monday applied for a judicial review of an agreement between the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation and the Director-General of Conservation allowing the foundation to control the deer numbers there. It argued that the agreement has the aim of managing – rather than eradicating – the deer.

The arrangement – which has allowed hunters to pay for ballot access to hunt the deer for recreation since 2011 – has seen the removal of more than 18,000 deer from the area in the past 20 years.

In a statement, Forest and Bird told the Southland Times the agreement does not comply with the National Parks Act 1980, which prioritises the protection of our unique ecosystems over introduced species.

Sloan said the legal action will divert much-needed money away from their conservation work.

“The Wapiti Foundation is a conservation organisation, not a hunting group, and our work is a great example of hunters giving back to conservation and the wider community,” he said.

“What we do has proved the most effective way of reducing deer numbers, as well as trapping predators and maintaining tracks and huts used by visitors.”

He said the culling operation “is saving DOC significant amounts of money, which is important when the department is facing hefty budget cuts and hundreds of job cuts”.

Sloan says there is huge demand for the wapiti hunts.

“For many hunters, this is a once in a lifetime dream and we get thousands of applications to hunt wapiti every year, so many that we have to hold a ballot to limit numbers.”

The Fiordland wapiti herd is the only one in the Southern Hemisphere.