Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Possible Solution to Cape May's Feral Cat Problem

A possible compromise solution to Cape May's feral cat problem will be up for a vote soon. As noted previously, Cape May keeps a colony of feral cats in close proximity to colonies of endangered beach nesting birds such as piping plover and least tern. The federal government is trying to force the town to protect the nesting areas more effectively.

The federal Endangered Species Act prohibits killing, harming or even bothering endangered birds like piping plovers and least terns, both of which nest in the shallow sandy ruts of Cape May's popular beach during the summer.

Because they nest on the ground, they are like sitting ducks for predators including wild cats, foxes and other animals.

Violations of the act can result in fines as high as $50,000 per incident, and 1-year jail terms.

The federal government, though, has an even bigger threat it can wield: the loss of desperately needed beach replenishment money to keep Cape May's beaches wide and sandy for the tourists that are this area's lifeblood....

The government originally wanted feral cat colonies moved back a mile from the beach _ something that cat lovers say would have mandated eliminating all wild cats from Cape May. They dug their heels in and resisted, leading to a compromise proposal to move the cat colonies at least 1,000 feet from the beach, and a half-mile from areas already identified as nesting grounds.

"One of the requirements for (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) doing replenishment is that the city have a beach management plan in place, and that plan must be approved by us," Cramer said. "That is definitely our stick here.

"We're reluctant about these buffers because we're worried they're not going to work," he said. "On the other hand, the city is taking pains to do things like patrol the beaches and make sure there are no feral cats there, so we're willing to work with them and view this as an experiment."
Most of the Cape May residents interviewed for the article seemed to support relocating the cats. As I wrote in my last post on the subject, I am not sure whether a 1,000 foot buffer will be sufficient; it really depends on how far the feral cats will wander during the course of the day. There is also a secondary problem: beach nesters are not the only birds that visit Cape May. During spring and fall migration, songbirds - including some threatened species - can be found throughout the peninsula, not just on the beaches.

If done correctly, the solution could be effective. The town needs to take care that fixing one problem does not create another problem somewhere else.

Update: The Cape May Council decided to put off voting on the proposal because they want state and federal biologists to explain the problem with feral cats again. Many Council members argued that feral cats are not a threat to shorebirds, and the meeting was flooded with testimony from cat lovers - both in-person and by email. The town needs to pass an acceptable beach management plan by March 15 or there will be no federal or state money for beach replenishment.

Here is a way for contacting Cape May officials.