Cat Management Plan Reads Like Fiction

In her recent attempt to “respond to recent comments and misinformation voiced by concerned citizens,” Anne Morkill, Refuge Manager for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges, misrepresented both the rationale for, and implications of, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s indefensible Predator Management Plan. My response to Morkill’s opinion piece was published in today’s Upper Keys Free Press (download 15.4 MB PDF) (p. 43) under the headline “Cat management plan reads like fiction”:

I’d like to challenge some of the assertions made by Anne Morkill in her recent letter (“Refuges, animal advocates have common goal,” March 30), beginning with her suggestion that the impact of free-roaming cats on the Keys’ wildlife is well understood. In fact, the rationale presented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment (download PDF) demonstrated quite clearly that the organization lacks the necessary understanding (e.g., estimates of population size, range, diet, etc.) to begin “managing” cats on or near the refuges.

Given the fact that the USFWS has been struggling with this issue for years (at taxpayer expense, of course), one might expect a better foundation of knowledge from which to proceed (again, at taxpayer expense).

Morkill is quick to brush aside allegations that wildlife impacts have “been overstated and the science is flawed,” but offers little in the way of details. She notes the obvious—that cats do kill birds, small mammals and so forth—but says nothing about the extent of such predation or its impact on those populations of greatest concern (e.g., the Lower Keys marsh rabbit and Key Largo woodrat, etc.). And her mention of “popular literature” as a legitimate source for such evidence—a reference, I assume, to Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, in which the author (who sits on the board of the American Bird Conservancy) gives voice to his own opinions about cats and birds through one of his characters—is enough to erode any credibility she may have had on the subject.

On the other hand, much of the “justification for action” presented by USFWS in its Predator Management Plan is itself a kind of fiction. To support their claim that free-roaming cats have been a major cause of 33 extinctions around the world, for example, USFWS references studies of species that simply aren’t extinct. And, among the “evidence” of island extinctions are studies that—in addition to having nothing to do with extinctions—were not conducted on islands (e.g., rural Wisconsin, the small English village of Felmersham, etc.).

USFWS claims that free-roaming cats kill at least one billion birds every year in the U.S., but provides virtually nothing in the way of support. Indeed, one the three articles referenced—published in a birding magazine—is about defending one’s garden from neighborhood cats (“… try a B-B or pellet gun. There is no need to kill or shoot toward the head, but a good sting on the rump seems memorable for most felines, and they seldom return for a third experience.”). Another article cited by USFWS isn’t about cats at all. Or even invasive animals. It’s about invasive plants.

For USFWS to include such egregious errors in its Predator Management Plan (and there are plenty more, as I’ve documented in my comments to USFWS) suggests carelessness, clearly, but also a disregard for the public they are supposed to serve.

Had USFWS been more diligent in its review of the science, its plan would have addressed the risk of removing free-roaming cats from the Keys. If the agency were successful in removing the cats (unlikely, given their poor track record), the population of black rats would likely skyrocket—and decimate the very populations of native birds, mice and rats USFWS is trying to protect. As would the use of rodenticides that they would use ordinarily to control the population of rats. This phenomenon is well documented in the scientific literature, yet USFWS fails to acknowledge even the possibility in the Keys.

And they fail to acknowledge what’s involved in “successful” removal efforts. On Marion Island, located in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean, it took 19 years to eradicate something like 2,200 cats—using disease, poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. This, on an island that’s only 115 square miles in total area (slightly smaller than the combined area of the Keys), barren and uninhabited. The cost, I’m sure, was astronomical.

USFWS has a much more difficult task on its hands, obviously, though one would never guess this was the case reading through its Predator Management Plan.

And finally, a few comments about Morkill’s claim that “the service will not kill any cats.” Does she really think readers won’t pick up on the game she’s playing? If USFWS goes through with its plan, as proposed, it’s quite likely that many cats will end up dead. Does it matter that the dirty work will be done by Monroe County animal control shelters, rather than USFWS? As Morkill points out, the shelters “will be responsible for choosing the best future for the cats,” which, she adds, “may be adopted by individuals or groups that can provide long-term care.”

I asked Connie Christian, executive director of the Florida Keys SPCA, about this issue earlier this year, and she told me, “We do not have an outlet for feral cats that are brought to us without a request for return.” In other words, that “best future” Morkill refers to is—almost certainly—no future at all.

Like Morkill, I “agree that this is a people problem.” Unfortunately, she missed the irony in her comment: some of the people at the heart of the problem are right there at USFWS.