Cats look so cute batting at a piece of string, or pouncing on a ball of yarn. But a lot of people don’t think cats are cute when they’re batting, or pouncing on, a bird — especially one of an endangered species.
Almost 200 conservation organizations from across the country have joined a campaign urging the U.S. Department of the Interior to adopt policies for dealing with feral cats on public lands. A letter addressed to Sally Jewell, secretary of the Interior, cites studies by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimating that 2.4 billion birds, and 12.3 billion mammals, are killed by cats every year in this country.
“They attribute two-thirds of these bird deaths, and nearly 90 percent of mammal deaths they attribute, to feral cats,” said Allison Jones, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Wild Utah Project.
Wild Utah Project is one of the groups listed as signatories of the letter, which was sent earlier this year. The Bridgerland Audubon Society, based in Logan, also signed.
“There’s no reason there should be feral cats on federal public lands,” said Linda Kervin, a member of the Bridgerland Audubon Society’s board of trustees.
Feral cats, wild domesticated animals, are not native to the United States.
“They’re an introduced predator, and a predator working in an environment where species haven’t evolved protections against those threats,” said John Cavitt, professor of zoology at Weber State University.
“To put the impacts in perspective, some estimates calculated suggest there are 180 million feral cats in the U.S.,” Cavitt said. “When we had the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it killed about 7,000 birds and everybody was concerned about that ... but cats kill, it’s estimated, about a billion birds in the U.S. alone every year, and that’s all based on research that’s been coming out of different studies that have estimated their impacts.”
Peter Wolf, cat initiatives analyst for the Kanab-based Best Friends Animal Society, doesn’t believe the numbers.
“There’s no rigorous population estimate for the number of unowned free-roaming cats,” he said.
Wolf says the American Bird Conservancy, one of the groups pushing for the implementation of feral cat policies, has been misleading policy-makers about the threats posed by cats since launching a “Cats Indoors” program in 1997.
“In a lot of ways, I see this as just the latest effort in a long-running witch-hunt against unowned free-roaming cats, supported by a lot of shoddy science, and misrepresented science,” he said. “I would say none of us knows how big an issue the presence of unowned, free-roaming cats is.”
Wolf also says there’s no compelling evidence, other than on oceanic islands, to suggest cats are having any population impacts.
The problem is more obvious on islands, according to Cavitt.
“We know there’s probably about 30-plus species that have gone extinct because of feral cats, and most of those species were on islands,” he said. “Those kinds of habitats are very sensitive to those kind of disturbances, but it emphasizes the importance of feral cats as a predator.”
The impact of feral cats on wildlife in Utah is unknown.
“We don’t have the data,” said Phil Douglass, wildlife conservation outreach manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in northern Utah. “Our impression is that it can have an impact on wildlife.”
If feral cats are a problem, what’s to be done?
“All the letter is doing is asking the secretary of the Interior to develop a policy that deals with feral cats. There are no specific recommendations about how she should go about doing it,” said Kervin.
Karlene Fuller, manager of Animal Angels rescue in Layton, suggests trapping, neutering and feeding feral cats.
“When they’re fixed, and if provided food, they have less need to have to hunt for their food,” she said.
But the letter to Jewell cites studies concluding that trap, neuter and release programs don’t adequately reduce feral cat populations. “The only sure way to simultaneously protect wildlife and people is to remove feral cats from the landscape,” the letter states.
Jones says trap, neuter and release programs are a humane strategy, but may not be worth the effort based on those studies. If that’s the case, she said, the most humane solution may be to round cats up, then euthanize those that aren’t adopted.
Wolf says killing cats on public lands is not the answer.
“There are probably not going to be a lot of free-roaming cats in Bryce Canyon, Zion or the Grand Canyon,” he said. “There are places where private land butts up against public land. As soon as you start calling for open season, if you will, on any cats on those lands, how would one even distinguish between a pet cat without a collar and a free-roaming cat?”
Wolf says there are studies supporting trap, neuter and release programs, but it’s a slow process.
“You’re counting on the numbers to decrease due to attrition,” he said.
Killing cats is not a palatable option for the public, according to Wolf, and doesn’t work.
“What you never see is a mention of a community that has effectively eliminated, or even significantly reduced, the number of free-roaming cats with lethal means,” he said. “You won’t see it, because it hasn’t been done.”
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources doesn’t have a policy for dealing with feral cats, according to Douglass.
“We’ve had proposals before, that some counties have asked to do a spay and release-type program, and we’re not entirely supportive of that,” he said, noting that cats are still predators after being released. “The bottom line here is that we ask people to take care of their pets, and to take some responsibility so they don’t impact wildlife.”
That includes putting bird feeders where cats can’t easily catch visiting birds.
Cavitt recommends keeping pet cats indoors, as he does with his two cats.
“That is the safest manner,” he said, “not only for wildlife, but for the cats themselves — they live a longer life if they’re an indoor cat.”
Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.