Endangered In the Florida Keys: Journalism

The witch-hunt against free-roaming cats—promoted by USFWS and others—is doing nothing to protect the threatened and endangered species in the Keys (and elsewhere). Neither is the sloppy reporting that allows the agency to mislead policymakers and the general public.

Monday’s Tampa Bay Times reported that a captive breeding program aimed at saving the endangered Key Largo woodrat from extinction has been shut down.

“At first the breeding program seemed to be a big success. At Lowry Park and, later, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the endangered rats bred like, well, rats. But then the project ran into big problems, demonstrating why captive breeding is a tricky strategy that’s used only as a last resort, said Larry Williams, South Florida field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service.” [1]

In fact, reporter Craig Pittman provides no evidence that the Key Largo woodrats were ever “breeding like rats.” Not even in the wild. Indeed, as he points out, “they… tend to be solitary. The males and females only get together when the female is ready to breed.” [1]

In any case, the population in the Keys—now limited to Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park—continued, by all accounts, to decline. “Wildlife biologists,” writes Pittman, “didn’t have to look far for the reason.”

“Next to the parks is the Ocean Reef Club, a gated community that boasts some of South Florida’s wealthiest residents—as well as the state’s largest feral cat population. Ocean Reef’s homeowners spend thousands of dollars a year on a program that feeds and cares for the stray cats that wander the back alleys—and, according to biologists—occasionally gobble up endangered rats.” [1]

It’s true that biologists didn’t have to look far. “The primary threat to the Key Largo woodrat,” explains a 1999 USFWS report (which, admittedly, includes feral cats among the “other threats associated with human encroachment”), “is habitat loss and fragmentation caused by increasing urbanization.” [2]

But Pittman’s so busy trying to pin the Key Largo woodrat’s fate on the one-percenters that he fails (conveniently!) to mention that the Ocean Reef cats are also sterilized. Indeed, according to the Ocean Reef Community Association’s website, ORCAT—Ocean Reef’s TNR program—has reduced the overall population from a high of approximately 2,000 cats in the late 1980s to 350 today, of which only about 250 are free-roaming.

Through their tireless efforts, ORCAT has prevented the birth of hundreds—if not thousands—of kittens. USFWS efforts to reduce the potential impacts of free-roaming cats in the area pale in comparison.

In fact, one wonders—contrary to Pittman’s suggestion—just how desperate the agency is to save the woodrat. The captive breeding program, we’re told, was costing USFWS $12,000/year. Compare that to the $50,000 the Service allocated (through a contract with USDA) in 2007 for trapping cats in the Keys. [3] Unofficial reports (I’m told nothing official has been issued) suggest that something like 13 cats were caught—some of which were clearly not feral—along with 81 raccoons, 53 of which were released alive. [4]

Into the Wild
“Disney set up an intensive study of how the wild wood rats behaved in their native habitat,” writes Pittman.

“They put radio collars on some of the wild rats and followed them around to learn how they ate and nested. But when they began releasing the radio-collared, captive-bred rats in 2010, the rats didn’t last long. ‘The feral cats were just wiping them out,’ said Darren Wostenberg, one of the biologists who followed the rats’ radio signals. ‘We released 14 the first time out and within a week we’d lost half of them. They weren’t used to predators.’” [1]

Where’s the evidence that the cats were just wiping them out? After all, when the last of the captive-bred woodrats were released last December on Palo Alto Key—where there are no feral cats—they fared no better.

“Within a month, nearly half were dead, gobbled up by owls and other predators from the skies. At the end of four months, only three remained. In May, when they were down to just one male on Palo Alto Key, biologists recaptured it and took it over to Crocodile Lake. They hoped it would find the wild rats and reproduce. But the rat somehow slipped out of its collar. ‘His fate is unknown,’ [USFWS spokesman Ken] Warren said.” [1]

And in 2007, a radio-collared woodrat was tracked to a python, the first found in the Keys. “The radio tracking device, and the rat wearing it, were both inside the snake.” [1]

And the Cats?
So what role did the cats play in all of this? No doubt there are plenty of “owls and other predators from the skies” in Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park. Maybe pythons, too.

Pittman’s story implies a great deal, but provides precious little evidence. Perhaps because it doesn’t exist. Prompted by a March 30, 2011 post on the Disney Parks blog, I went looking for it myself, contacting Anne Savage, Conservation Director for Disney’s Animal Programs.

Not surprisingly (this is Disney, after all), Savage directed me to the media relations department, where I was told, via e-mail:  “you may also want to reach out to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since they are responsible for overseeing the program. Our role is just a supporting one.”

I explained that I’d already tried to contact USFWS, but without success. In any case, Savage would surely be able to answer some simple questions about how many woodrats were released on different occasions, and how mortalities were assigned to different predators.*

Or maybe not.

“Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the agency in charge of the program,” replied Andrea Finger, Media Relations Manager for Disney, “it’s really up to them to address your questions.”

If nobody’s interested in talking, perhaps it’s because this award-winning program seems to have been flawed from the outset—something Pittman alludes to only at the very end of his story.

“The project wasn’t a total loss… biologists now know far more about rat behavior than ever before. They discovered captive-bred rats have to learn how to avoid predators, unlike other species that have an instinct for dodging death.” [1]

Well, yeah.

Though I never got an answer from USFWS (despite promises that a report was forthcoming), I did receive an e-mail from somebody familiar with the captive breeding program. Prior to their release, the woodrats apparently behaved more like pets than wildlife—associating the noise of an approaching human with food.

Adorable, I’m sure—but an enormous liability in the wild.

* Indeed, Savage’s blog post indicates quite clearly that she’s aware of the numbers involved and, though she’s rather cryptic about it, the causes of mortality: “Unfortunately, the released woodrats also experience the same challenges as wild woodrats, including predation. We join with other conservation organizations in supporting plans for humane removal of non-native species from endangered species habitat.”

Literature Cited
1. Pittman, C. (2012, July 9). No jolly Disney ending for endangered Key Largo wood rats bred at Animal Kingdom. Tampa Bay Times, from http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/wildlife/article1239400.ece

2. n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Key Largo Woodrat. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 195–216. http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/index.cfm?Method=programs&NavProgramCategoryID=3&programID=107&ProgramCategoryID=3


3. O’Hara, T. (2007, April 3). Fish & Wildlife Service to begin removing cats from Keys refuges. The Key West Citizen, from http://keysnews.com/archives

4. n.a., Lower Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Comprehensive Conservation Plan. 2009, U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/