Refuge cat trapping program underway

By Steve Estes

The trapping of feral cats on federal lands across Big Pine Key has gotten off to a quiet start.

Once a highly controversial program, the National Key Deer Refuge has been been involved in an ongoing trapping program seeking free-roaming cats in sensitive habitat areas for several months.

The refuge has long promised a free-roaming cat trapping as one of the long-term measures to ensure the continued survival of the endangered Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit.

With a population thought to be in just the hundreds, the slow-moving nocturnal Marsh Rabbit has been on the federal endangered species list for years.

Human development on Big Pine and No Name Keys has severely fragmented the preferred habitat for the rabbit, salt marshes and wetlands, and has all but wiped out the critters on neighboring islands where sightings have been more and more infrequent over the last five years.

But beyond the damage done to preferred habitat for the rabbit by human encroachment, a favorite human pet, the common house cat, has risen to the level where biologists feel free-roaming cats are the number one threat to the continued existence of the marsh rabbit in the future.

Most residents of the two islands where the rabbit is primarily seen these days probably haven’t run across any of the tapping sites currently being used.

Nancy Finley, refuge manager, says right now the tapping program is focused in areas “where the resource is a concern.”

That concern is known habitat and potential habitat for the endangered rabbit.

The program now has some history behind it.

According to Finley, the refuge has trapped seven cats thus far as part of the program. It has also trapped some raccoons and opossums in the cages.

All of the cats have been turned over to the animal shelter for further handling while “any other critters have been released,” said Finley.

She said the program is being conducted exclusively with existing staff, and insists that it is well monitored enough to prevent having trapped cats, or other critters, caught in cages languishing in the cages for any significant period of time.

Taking some action to diminish feral cat populations was one of the things Monroe County agreed to when it signed the Habitat Conservation Plan/ Incidental Take Permit for Big Pine and No Name Keys nearly a decade ago.

Thus far, that action has been to distribute educational materials about keeping house cats at home and the dangers of free-roaming cats on the environment, as well as a yearly report on the efforts undertaken to reduce feral cat populations.

As part of its latest animal control contract, the Board of County Commissioners required bidders to outline a feral cat reduction program. The private contractor is supposed to respond to complaints of high populations of feral cats on non-federal and non-private lands and set traps to diminish the population.

The county also adopted a pet cat restriction for new construction throughout the county where potential habitat exists for the rabbit, the Key Largo Woodrat, the Silver Rice Rat and other cat-favorite critters, that requires builders to sign an affidavit that any pet cats will be kept indoors.

But local residents still regularly see illicit feeding stations for cats scattered through the more remote areas of Big Pine Key, and more prevalent in closer proximity to human enclaves.

Right now, Finely said the refuge is working on the larger wetland tracts contained inside the refuge, a prime rabbit habitat area.

“As those areas are trapped out, we’ll move to other areas, particularly those where we know the resource (rabbit) to exist,” she said.

The refuge and the county haven’t had a conversation about feral cat reduction on non-federal lands, an area where Finely has no jurisdiction, in quite a while

“Eventually we have to have that conversation and get the county on board with actively reducing the number of free-roaming cats,” she said.

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