Efforts to protect native animals in Florida Keys wildlife refuges will trap feral cats and other unwanted "pests," say federal managers.
The "Final Integrated Pest Management Plan" for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges, released this week, says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff "will begin actively controlling and removing certain exotic animals from public lands within these refuges."
That includes national wildlife lands at Crocodile Lake on North Key Largo, National Key Deer Refuge based on Big Pine Key, and the Great White Heron and Key West refuges in the Lower Keys.
"They've been talking about this for several years but this is the first we've heard that they're actually going to begin implementation," said Jerry Dykhuisen, an officer of Forgotten Felines, a cat-rescue group in the Middle and Lower Keys.
Forgotten Felines and several other national animal groups oppose trapping feral cats, which often are considered unadoptable and put to death.
A number of conservation groups including the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and the American Bird Conservancy support the plan, saying birds and local endangered species have few defenses against predatory cats that do not belong in Keys wild areas.
"In terms of influencing the Lower Keys marsh rabbit or Key Largo woodrats chance of persisting, the significance of cat predation exceeds other threats," says the management plan. "Cats impact a remarkable proportion of species in affected communities."
White-crowned pigeons and many other protected bird species "depend upon Keys habitats to sustain them before and after long, over-water migrations," said Audubon Florida's Julie Wraithmell in an FWS statement. "This management plan helps ensure a future for these species in the Florida Keys."
Phillip Hughes, an FWS biologist and acting manager at the Key Deer refuge, said the agency will not mount a large-scale trapping program, but will place traps in known areas where cats and wildlife may come together.
Cats captured will be taken to local animal shelters where staff "can use their expertise regard final disposition of the cats..."
That could include trying to place the cats with "responsible pet owners or placement in long-term cat care facilities on the mainland."
The county-contracted shelter closest to Big Pine Key is based in Marathon.
"When they were talking about this before, there was a no-kill shelter on Big Pine where people could go to get their pets back," Dykhuisen said. "Now there's no shelter at all, so that's a complicating factor."
Iguanas, also considered an unwanted exotic species that eats plants needed by native wildlife, also could be targeted under the plan.
When the draft Pest Management Plan was published in late 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service received 9,614 comments. The final plan says "over 99 percent" of those were "Internet-generated letters with standard comments."