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Threat Abatement Plan for Predation by Feral Cats

Biodiversity Group Environment Australia, 1999
0 642 2546339

Threat Abatement Objectives and Actions

The aims of this plan are to promote the recovery of endangered or vulnerable native species and communities, and to prevent further species becoming endangered by reducing predation by feral cats to non-threatening levels. These aims will be achieved by implementing currently available cat control techniques at sites of high conservation value, providing for the development of new control techniques, and collecting information to improve our understanding of cats and their impacts. The key performance indicators will be the development and application of a cat-specific control measure and the degree of security achieved for species that are currently or potentially threatened by feral cat predation.

Key objectives for this plan are to:

Objective 1: Eradicate feral cats from islands where they are a threat to endangered or vulnerable native animals.

Objective 2: Prevent feral cats occupying new islands in Australia where they may threaten species or ecological communities with extinction.

Objective 3: Promote the recovery of species and ecological communities that are endangered or vulnerable as a result of predation by feral cats.

Objective 4: Improve the effectiveness and humaneness of cat control methods.

Objective 5: Improve knowledge and understanding of the impacts of feral cats on endangered or vulnerable native animals and the interactions of feral cats with other pest species.

Objective 6: Communicate the results of the threat abatement plan actions to management agencies, landholders and the public.

Objective 7: Effectively coordinate feral cat control activities.

Cost-effective and efficient control measures will, wherever possible, be applied through regionally coordinated management partnerships involving landholders, community groups and all levels of government. Management of cats will be integrated with other natural resource management activities and, where relevant, with the management of other pest species identified as contributing to key threatening processes.

To achieve the objective of threat abatement, actions in four key areas are prescribed:

  • implementing feral cat control programs in specific areas of high conservation priority;
  • encouraging the development and use of innovative and humane control methods for feral cat management;
  • collecting and disseminating information to improve understanding of the ecology of cats in Australia, their impacts and methods to control them; and
  • educating land managers and relevant organisations to improve their knowledge of the impacts of predation by feral cats and ensure skilled and effective participation in control activities.

Cat Management

Cat-Free Islands

Objective 1: Eradicate feral cats from islands where they are a threat to endangered or vulnerable native animals.

As indicated above, predation by feral cats has been demonstrated to be a significant threat to many island populations of native animals. Eradication of feral cats from an island may be a feasible option with long-term benefits to threatened species. Currently there is a major integrated pest management program to remove feral cats, among other introduced species, from the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island to protect nesting sea bird colonies, including albatrosses. The program is based upon existing control methods such as trapping and shooting, but would be significantly enhanced if the cat-specific baiting control system currently being researched should become available for broadscale use.

Actions

Continue to implement the feral cat eradication program currently being conducted on Macquarie Island.

Identify other islands with feral cats present and determine priorities for eradication programs based on the species to be protected from predation.

Objective 2: Prevent feral cats occupying new islands in Australia where they may threaten species or ecological communities with extinction.

Given that predation by feral cats is known to have caused the decline or extinction of island populations of native species, a priority of this plan is to minimise the risk of cats becoming established on any more islands. Preventing the introduction of cats to islands of high conservation value requires identification of potential routes of invasion, a risk analysis to determine the probability of such an event and procedures to manage and minimise the risk. There must also be the ability to detect incursions before feral cat populations have a chance to become established, and contingency plans which identify the most appropriate control measures and funding sources to implement the required control.

Actions

Identify islands of high conservation value and rank the level of risk of cats being introduced and establishing populations on these islands.

Identify measures to ensure that islands known to be of high conservation value remain free of feral cats.

Develop and implement contingency plans to contain and exterminate any incursion by cats onto islands with high conservation values.

Environment Australia will provide funds from its operating budget to enable staff to work with relevant State authorities to implement these actions. Identification of islands of high conservation value will be based on existing data. Additional costs of these actions will be determined by the results of the risk analysis.

Objective 3: Promote the recovery of species and ecological communities that are endangered or vulnerable as a result of predation by feral cats.

Local Control Plans

Predation by feral cats has been confirmed as a significant threat to a small number of listed endangered and vulnerable species (Table 1). Recovery plans for these species identify control of feral cats as a necessary component of the recovery process. Implementation of local control plans in areas identified as critical habitat for these species must be a top priority of this threat abatement plan.

Predation by feral cats has also been identified as a perceived threat for a number of listed endangered or vulnerable species (Table 1). For these species there is a need to test whether cat predation is a serious threat to recovery. Development and implementation of recovery plans for these species should determine the significance of predation by feral cats as a threat to these species and the level of control necessary to secure recovery of the species. Cat control activities promoted under these recovery plans must be designed to help quantify the significance of predation by feral cats compared to other threats to the species concerned.

Translocation has been identified as an important strategy for expanding existing populations of endangered species. Some of the most successful examples of conservation of endangered species have been on islands or within enclosures from which feral predators are excluded. Preparing areas to receive translocated populations is an important component of the recovery plans of a number of species known, or perceived, to be threatened by predation by feral cats. Implementation of local control plans in areas designated as translocation sites for such species should be a high priority and be consistent with the recovery plans for these species.

Actions

Implement local control for species where predation by feral cats is a known threat.

Implement local control programs in areas designated as translocation sites for species where predation by feral cats is a known threat.

Implement experimental control programs in areas of critical habitat for species perceived to be threatened by cat predation, to determine the significance of the threat and the level of control necessary to secure recovery.

Support regional organisations, community groups and conservation agencies to collaboratively develop and implement local feral cat control programs to protect endangered or vulnerable native species.

Identify incentives to promote and maintain on-ground feral cat control on private or leasehold lands that contain populations of endangered species, or where control is necessary, to provide a buffer zone around a population of a listed species.

The Commonwealth will make funds available, through the Endangered Species, and Feral Animal Control Program, and other programs of the Natural Heritage Trust, to support projects involving local feral cat control. Commonwealth funding will assist the development of local partnerships, where appropriate, to integrate management of feral cats on public and private lands. Where local feral cat control confirms that feral cat predation is a significant threat to particular species, this plan will promote the expansion and integration of local site-specific control plans into regional control plans for the species, as well as promoting direct links with other relevant biodiversity conservation initiatives in the region.

Regional Control Plans

Regional control plans are designed to provide protection to, or to provide a substantial expansion of suitable habitat for, a number of threatened species. They are also valuable in preparing areas for the reintroduction of species to sites within their former range.

It is debatable whether control of feral cats at a regional level is feasible using existing control methods. Existing control methods (baiting and shooting) are expensive and have varying success due to intermittent susceptibility of many populations of feral cats to these control measures. There are also problems in developing and managing control programs that involve large areas of land under different tenure. Nevertheless, South Australia is attempting to control feral cats at a regional level under Bounceback 2000, which is developing an integrated approach to the control of foxes, feral cats, goats and rabbits, involving national parks, neighbouring landholders and community groups. Implementation of this regional control plan will identify the potential effectiveness of broadscale control of feral cats using existing technology. It will also substantially enhance the ability of land managers to develop and apply an integrated approach to feral animal control, which must be a priority of this threat abatement plan. Further investment in regional feral cat control programs will be contingent upon the development of new control systems suitable for broadscale application or the demonstration by Bounceback 2000 that the application of existing control methods can achieve cost-effective control at the regional level.

Action

Continue implementation of Bounceback 2000 in South Australia. This will test the effectiveness of applying existing feral cat control methods at a regional scale to minimise predation on remnant populations of threatened species and facilitate the reintroduction of locally extinct species.

The Commonwealth will make funds available, through the programs of the Natural Heritage Trust, to support the further development of this regional feral cat control program. Where possible, management of feral cats on public and private lands will be integrated with other regional biodiversity conservation measures through the development of regional partnerships.

Innovative and Humane Control Methods

Objective 4: Improve the effectiveness and humaneness of cat control methods.

Humane Poisoning

Recent studies funded under the National Feral Animal Control Program have identified a potentially cat-specific toxin which appears to be a humane method of control. Further detailed studies are needed to confirm that the toxin causes a humane death and can be effectively applied in the wild, and to provide the information necessary for the new compound to be nationally registered as an approved method of control for feral cats. Recovery of species threatened by feral cat predation will only occur if the amount of predation can be reduced rapidly to non-threatening levels. Development of a new and effective method of humane lethal control for feral cats is the highest priority of this threat abatement plan.

Control of feral cats has only received significant attention in recent years because of concerns about the impacts that predation by feral cats may be having on threatened species of native animals. As a consequence, there is not an agreed code of practice for the humane capture, handling or destruction of feral cats. Identification of acceptable humane control methods is a priority of this threat abatement plan.

Actions

Support studies to develop, test and register a more humane, cat-specific toxin for the control of feral cats.

Develop a code of practice for the humane capture, handling and destruction of feral cats.

Funds will be made available through the National Feral Animal Control Program of the Natural Heritage Trust to support these actions. The costs of these actions cannot be accurately determined as they will depend upon the nature of the tests required to evaluate and register a new poison bait system to control feral cats.

Fertility Control

Cats have a high rate of reproduction, usually producing two litters a year with up to seven young in each litter. Females become sexually mature at 10 to 12 months old while males mature at 12 to 14 months. In good seasons feral cat numbers can increase rapidly. In these circumstances, control methods that result in only temporary sterility would be unlikely to provide any effective level of population control. Currently there are no effective chemical sterilants for cats that will result in permanent sterility (Moodie 1995).

The development of a non-lethal method of cat control may be particularly important for use in urban and peri-urban areas where the risk to domestic animals may prevent or severely restrict the use of poison. However, fertility control is still at an experimental stage of development and has yet to be successfully applied to a free ranging population of wild mammals over a large area. In addition, fertility control does not address the immediate problem of predation by feral cats being at levels that are detrimental to the continued survival of the threatened species population.

Given the high cost of research on fertility control agents and the existing research on other species, this plan recommends that progress in the development of fertility controls for foxes, rabbits and mice be monitored, but that no additional funds be invested in work on cats until the benefits of current research have been demonstrated.

Action

Monitor progress with the development of fertility control methods for foxes, rabbits and mice. Should these studies demonstrate the effectiveness of fertility control methods for any of these species, review the potential applicability to feral cat control and identify the research necessary to develop and apply the methodology to feral cats.

Funding support for this action may be made available through the National Feral Animal Control Program of the Natural Heritage Trust.

Delivery Systems

Whether the intention is to control cats through poison or fertility control agents, a suitable delivery system or bait is required. Tradition and convenience have usually determined the selection of bait materials, although a wide range of products has been employed.

It is important to ensure that the most cost-effective delivery systems are used and the risk of bait shyness developing in feral cats is minimised. A priority of this plan is to identify the most attractive bait for feral cats that could be used in conjunction with a cat-specific toxin to produce an effective feral cat control system. It is also important to ensure that the risks of non-target poisoning are minimised.

Actions

Identify the most attractive bait materials for use with feral cats and the conditions under which different baits will be most effective by reviewing the results of previous studies on a range of potential baits.

Assess existing delivery systems for their effectiveness in delivering control substances to feral cats and minimising the risk of non-target impacts.

Identify and develop the most attractive bait(s) for use in combination with the cat-specific toxin to provide a feral cat control system suitable for broadscale use.

Funding support will be made available through the National Feral Animal Control Program of the Natural Heritage Trust.

Fencing

Exclusion fences have been promoted as a suitable means of minimising predation on threatened species of native animals. The threat abatement plan for foxes has identified the need to evaluate the effectiveness of existing fence designs to exclude foxes. Fence designs should also be evaluated in terms of their effectiveness in excluding cats. A recent review of fence designs (Coman and McCutchan 1994) highlighted the need for a comprehensive evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of different fence designs, to ensure that future investment in predator resistant fences is directed towards the most effective designs. Any review of the ability of fences to exclude foxes should also include an evaluation of the effectiveness of the design in excluding feral cats.

Actions

Evaluate and disseminate information on existing fence designs for their suitability to particular habitats or topography and determine the relative cost-effectiveness of individual fence designs as a means of excluding feral predators.

Investigate the behaviour of predators at electrified and non-electrified fences to determine potential weak points in fence designs that may compromise their effectiveness.

Implementation of these actions may be supported with funding made available through the National Feral Animal Control Program of the Natural Heritage Trust.

Information

Objective 5: Improve knowledge and understanding of the impacts of feral cats on endangered or vulnerable native animals and the interactions of feral cats with other pest species.

Documenting Cat Impacts

Although cats are known to have been present since the earliest days of settlement, and some data suggest a possible earlier presence, there are only limited data available on the impacts of predation by feral cats on populations of native species. Animals that are known to affect primary production values such as rabbits, goats and foxes have been the subject of a variety of studies aimed at defining the problems which they cause to primary production and identifying suitable methods of control. In contrast, knowledge of the ecology and behaviour of feral cats is still inadequate and methods of control suitable for use on cats are still being investigated. Ensuring that field experience and research are applied to further improve feral cat control programs is an important element of this plan. There is a recognised need to improve understanding of the impact of feral cats on a range of native species. This will be best achieved through the application of effective control methods to reduce cat numbers while measuring the response of particular species to the consequent reduction in predation. Such information is critical to determining if predation by feral cats is a significant threat to survival of the species concerned and the degree of control necessary to ameliorate that threat.

Adaptive management approaches that experimentally test different control techniques and treatment frequencies will be encouraged. By measuring the effectiveness of different control strategies in achieving recovery of threatened species, the ability to effectively abate the threat posed by feral cats will be improved. Simple and cost-effective means of monitoring the impacts of feral cats on threatened species will be necessary to assist in evaluating the effectiveness of particular control activities.

In addition to direct impacts through predation, feral cats may also affect native carnivores through competition. Where native carnivores are present with feral cats, studies should be initiated to identify the relative importance of competition and predation by feral cats on the native species.

Actions

Develop simple and cost-effective methods of monitoring the impacts of feral cats on threatened species as a means of evaluating control activities.

Investigate interactions between feral cats and native carnivores to identify relative significance of competition and predation by feral cats to these native species.

Environment Australia will provide funds from its operating budget to enable staff to work with relevant State authorities to ensure the necessary data are made available.

Understanding Interactions with other Feral Pests

Rabbits are one of the preferred foods for feral cats. The occurrence and abundance of rabbits has been shown to influence cat numbers. Rabbit control is therefore of critical importance to achieving long-term suppression of feral cat numbers.

Recent studies suggest that feral cats may be excluded or their numbers suppressed where foxes are common, and reducing fox numbers may lead to increased cat numbers. Should these suggestions be confirmed, it will have implications for the way in which fox control is applied and integrated with the management of feral cats.

Given the high level of interaction between foxes, cats and rabbits, activities identified in this plan must, wherever possible, be integrated with the threat abatement plans for the fox and rabbit.

Actions

Identify the importance of rabbits for maintaining high cat numbers so that control of both species can be integrated to minimise risks to native species.

Determine the nature of interactions between cats and foxes (competition and/or predation) in order to more effectively integrate feral cat control activities with fox control activities.

Funding support may be made available through the National Feral Animal Control Program of the Natural Heritage Trust.

Refining Priority Setting Mechanisms

Identification of species and regions which will benefit most from coordinated feral cat control activities is vital. Recovery plans identify those species at risk and areas of habitat critical for their survival. Implementation of these plans must be accorded the highest priority in national action to abate the threat posed by feral cats. Available resources will seldom, if ever, be sufficient to fully implement all the cat control measures recommended in recovery plans. Increasingly, areas will need to be ranked on a nationally consistent basis to ensure that decisions about funding for control activities can maximise the conservation benefits to be derived. An agreed national methodology for ranking areas should be developed to cover protecting and facilitating the expansion of existing populations of endangered species, and preparing areas for translocation.

Actions

Prioritise areas for investment in feral cat control to take account more effectively of the degree of threat that cats pose to the survival of an endangered or vulnerable species or ecological community, the potential that species or ecological community has to recover, and the cost efficiency and likely effectiveness of cat control.

Develop decision support systems to assist land managers to identify locally appropriate control method(s) and the circumstances and times to apply them in controlling feral cats.

Map the distribution of susceptible species, high risk habitats and feral cats to produce a national overview of priority regions.

The cat threat abatement team, specified in the actions relating to Objective 7, will take responsibility for the implementation of these actions. Environment Australia will provide funds from its operating budget to enable staff to work with relevant State authorities to ensure the available data are collated and analysed.

Education

Objective 6: Communicate the results of the threat abatement plan actions to management agencies, landholders and the public.

Education and Extension

The success of this threat abatement plan will depend on a high level of cooperation between all key stakeholders, including landholders, community groups, local government, State and Territory conservation and pest management agencies and the Commonwealth Government and its agencies. Educating land managers and community organisations to ensure their skilled and effective participation in feral cat control activities, and to improve their knowledge of cat impacts, is an essential component of the plan. The plan is also intended to assist in documenting significant advances in knowledge, techniques and practices for abating the feral cat threat. A number of actions identified require an extension/education effort to ensure effective implementation.

Actions

Prepare and distribute extension material to promote understanding of the actions to be undertaken under this plan, the use of humane and cost-effective feral cat control methods, a wider knowledge of species recovery plans and the importance of predation by feral cats as a key threatening process.

The Cat Threat Abatement Team, specified in the actions relating to Objective 7, will guide the development and implementation of an education, extension and information transfer program. Environment Australia will provide funds from its operating budget for the initial development of a communications strategy. This strategy will include detailed budgets for future years of the five-year life of this plan.

Administration

Objective 7: Effectively coordinate feral cat control activities.

 

National Coordination

The activities and priorities under this plan will need to evolve with, and adapt to, changes as they occur and thus ensure that field experience and research are applied to improve management of feral cats further. Success will only be achieved if all key stakeholders are involved in its further development and cooperate in its implementation. The Threat Abatement Plan Advisory Group was of considerable assistance in the development of this plan and a similar body will be needed to direct the plan's implementation.

Implementation will require: the establishment of national priorities for local control plans based on individual species recovery plans and an evaluation of the evidence that predation by cats is a significant threat for species where this has not previously been established, the identification of opportunities for integrating individual local control plans to enhance efficiency of control and recommending regional priorities for funding. As identified above, the development of material to assist in extension and information transfer would be materially assisted by input from an advisory group comprising persons with relevant technical and practical experience in cat control. Similarly, a group with both technical and practical experience to draw upon could assess the potential broader application of control methods or approaches developed through local control plans.

Actions

A Cat Threat Abatement Team composed of people with relevant technical and practical experience, and convened by Environment Australia, will be established to advise the Minister on implementation of the plan.

An independent expert will be commissioned before the end of the five-year life of the plan to conduct a comprehensive review of the progress made in its implementation.

Environment Australia will provide funds from its operating budget to enable staff to convene the Threat Abatement Team and provide it with secretariat support. Costs of a comprehensive review of progress with implementation of this plan will be met from the National Feral Animal Control Program of the Natural Heritage Trust.

Published June 1999 by Environment Australia under the Natural Heritage Trust.

Commonwealth of Australia