After five years of planning, $3 million dollars in spending, and the combined efforts of multiple agencies, the feral cat removal project on San Nicolas Island is reportedly a triumphant success. Annie Little, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, described the progress of the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program’s Feral Cat Removal Project on January 12, at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. The following is the gist of Little’s report to a rapt audience, in which she also outlined the origin of the project and of the feral cats themselves.

Just south of the Los Angeles Harbor, Little explained, on the narrow Harbor Gateway, lies the former site of the Montrose Chemical Corporation of California. From 1947 until 1982, Montrose Chemical was the world’s largest manufacturer of the pesticides DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls). The long period of production of these products caused immense damage to the ocean, to wildlife, and especially to the nearby Channel Islands. In 1990, the U.S. government and the state of California filed a lawsuit under the federal Superfund law, alleging that a number of defendants were responsible for colossal damage to the environment. After a $30 million settlement was made, the natural resource trustees formed the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP) to plan and conduct restoration. San Nicolas Island and its feral cats became a target for the research and restoration.

It is believed that United States Navy personnel brought domestic cats to the island initially around the year 1950. Over time, Little explained, with the increasing lack of human contact, the cats became a wild and intrusive species that threatened the natural biodiversity of San Nicolas Island. The only island in the channel currently controlled by the Navy, San Nicolas is used minimally as a weapons testing (missile launching) and training facility.

The feral cats are said to prey on the western gull, island night lizard, and endemic deer mouse, all native and endangered species of the island, the biologist continued. The cats also compete with the native island foxes. Island foxes are the only other predator on the island. They are said to eat mostly vegetation and insects, and do not search, like the cats do, for the eggs, chicks, or lizards of the island, but would eat them if the opportunity were easily presented.

After identifying that removing the cats would be the best solution to the problem, the biologists, numerous project team members, and a team from the Humane Society tested many traps, finding that padded-leg hold traps were the most effective and least damaging to both the feral cats and the island foxes. The traps were set up on a system that would send signals to the main office on the island and tell researchers exactly where the trap went off, so the researchers could quickly catch cats, or remove foxes from the traps to prevent injury to the animals. In addition, a fox hospital was instated on the island, with a full-time veterinarian to respond to injuries.

All in all, 54 cats have been captured safely thus far with no injuries, diseases, or mortalities. A far greater number of foxes — 949 of them — have been captured throughout the project, and although there were several injuries, there were only three mortalities.

The latest cat-catching was on November 17, 2009, but the researchers know, from their camera monitoring, that there is still at least one cat left. There have not been any other signs of remaining cats, and the researchers believe the program’s end is nearly in sight. They plan to close the traps at the end of the month to avoid fox breeding season, but will continue to monitor with their fine-scale visual cameras.

The team also plans to continually monitor populations of foxes, seabirds, island night lizards, and endemic deer mice for a long period of time to see how they respond to the feral cats’ removal.

As for the cats, they have been adopted by the Humane Society and sent to the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in Ramona, California, where they have a permanent enclosed but “San Nicolas Island” simulated environment. They are under permanent care. Six of their kittens are being domesticated and will be put up for adoption through the Humane Society to anyone who is interested. “After all the effort between multiple agencies,” Little said, “the result has been very positive.”

If anyone is interested in adopting a kitten please call the Fund for Wildlife Center at (760) 789-2324


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