Complete predator plan paves way for trapping of cats on refuge lands

By Steve Estes

With the release this week of the Integrated Pest Management Plan by the National Wildlife Refuges of the Florida Keys, the way is clear for Key Deer Refuge staff to begin its program of trapping free-roaming cats on federal lands.

The trapping will be done by in-house personnel, says Phillip Hughes, acting refuge manager.

“Because of that, we can initiate the program rather quickly,” he said.

Free-roaming cats have been declared the number one predator of the endangered Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit and the Key Largo Woodrat. To control that predation, the refuge plans to begin a program of trapping feral cats on federal lands and removing those cats from sensitive habitat areas.

According to the trapping proposal guidelines, the traps will be set by refuge personnel, using baits that normally attract cats. The traps chosen for the job are designed not to kill the cats.

Refuge personnel are slated to check the traps daily and remove any critters caught.

What happens after that depends of the type critter found in the trap.

Cats caught in the traps will be transported “as quickly as possible,” says Hughes, to the animal shelter in Marathon.

Right now, refuge personnel plan to target areas where marsh rabbits call home, which encompasses a large portion of Big Pine Key, some No Name Key and smaller areas of Sugarloaf Key.

Shelter personnel will take in the cats and sort them according to adoptability, states the trapping plan.

Diseased or sick cats will probably be euthanized. Those cats considered too wild to be domesticated may be transferred to cat colonies on the mainland or disposed of by shelter personnel. Cats that shelter personnel believe can be successfully adopted will be.

Should someone’s domestic cat get caught up in a trap, if the cat is micro-chipped or otherwise identifiable to a specific owner, the shelter is supposed to contact the owner to retrieve the cat. Some fees may apply.

Before management of the shelter changed hands, personnel there had said they would set up a portion of their website to display the cats caught they believe to be domesticated so owners could try and retrieve the animals.

But the refuge plan doesn’t stop at just trapping feral predators. The plan also calls for the identification and eradication of illicit feeding stations for cats or other small rodents on federal lands. It is a violation of federal law to feed animals on refuge property although the practice is widespread.

“We support the proposed action to remove cats found on refuge lands, as well as any feral cat colonies and feeding stations found,” said Allison Higgins, chair of the Florida Keys Invasive Exotics Task Force.

The entire plan is confined to property owned by the federal government since the refuge has no jurisdiction on private or state/county owned lands and Monroe County hasn’t as yet agreed to join in the effort other than to mandate cooperation with the refuge by the animal control contractors under the terms of their separate agreements to provide animal control services.

While the initial focus will be the Key Deer Refuge, Hughes says that other areas, particularly Crocodile Lake in the Upper Keys, will also be open to trapping, “as local resources dictate.”

Refuge personnel already have some good ideas where they’ll find free-roaming cats in the greatest abundance. There has been a camera-capture program in place in remote parts of the refuge for more than a year where permanently installed motion-fired cameras snap pictures of animal movement.

Of course, refuge staff will also set up traps in verified marsh rabbit habitat areas where pellets are found.

It is estimated that more than 50 percent of the deaths of marsh rabbits, with a population estimated to be less than 200 animals, is from free-roaming cat attacks.

The trapping guidelines state that native species, such as the unique Keys population of raccoons, will be freed at the trap site.

But other species, considered invasive to the Keys’ ecosystem, will be disposed of by refuge staff.

Those other species include opossums, non-indigenous snakes, the occasional armadillo and iguanas.

“The opossum has become a real problem just in the last few years,” said Hughes. “They are larger than we would expect them to be and are very aggressive.”

Opossums are carnivorous, but also enjoy a good romp through residential trash cans on a regular basis.

“We are not targeting the green iguana,” said Hughes. “Operationally, we know that the green iguana is an issue, but it is not a focus target at this time.”

“A thorough and enforceable Integrated Pest Management Plan is crucial to the near term and long term survival of the delicate ecosystem here in the Florida Keys,” said Dr. Doug Mader, Marathon veterinarian. “A single feral cat or wild constrictor snake can have devastating consequences on the small mammals and birds.”

The refuge has long urged county officials to either join with them in a trapping program to lessen the number of feral cats that call Big Pine and No Name Key home or institute one of its own to aid in the protection of endangered species, but officials here have as yet not gone down that road.

No one is exactly sure of the number of feral and free-roaming cats on the island, but its estimated to be in the thousands.

The trapping program being contemplated by the refuge, which Hughes said should be ready to kick off by the end of February, still won’t be able to tackle some of the more well-known cat colony areas because of the prohibition against trapping on lands not owned by the federal government.

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners could simply agree to allow refuge personnel to expand into locally-owned lands, but that would do little for the private property where cats are an issue, such as the parking lot for the Big Pine Shopping Center where multiple dumpsters provide easy pickings for free-roaming cats, and cat feeding stations set up at various businesses along US 1 where the cats share bounty with raccoons, opossums and even Key Deer.

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