New home for Feral cats restores natural order to San Nicolas Island

Last Updated : 4/25/2012 4:47:58 PM

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Story by Sharon StephensonPino, Navy Region Southwest Public Affairs

Off the coast of Southern California, just 60 miles from Los Angeles, sits
San Nicolas Island, one of California’s eight Channel Islands. The island is
only 3.5 miles wide and 9 miles long. Several species call this island home.
It is a vital nesting habitat for native seabirds and shorebirds, such as the
Brandt’s cormorants, western gulls and the federally threatened western
snowy plover. It’s also home to the federally threatened island night lizard
and the state threatened San Nicolas island fox.

What should be a safe haven for these native species also became home to a
group of unfriendly neighbors: non-native feral cats. That was until recently,
when the island made its mark in history, becoming the largest island for cat
eradication completed in the U.S. without the use of a toxicant to date.

The cats, as it turned out, were upsetting the natural balance of the island’s ecosystem.
As a result, several conservation groups teamed with the Navy to safely remove the
cats and restore the island to its natural order. This project was done over a three-year
period, beginning in 2009. On Feb. 15, to commemorate the completion of the Seabird
Restoration Plan, members of the project met on the island. These groups include members
of the Montrose Settlements RestorationProgram, the U.S. Navy, Island Conservation,
Institute for Wildlife Studies and The Humane Society of the United States.

The island is owned by the Navy, and about 200 sailors, civil service employees
and contractors work there maintaining missile and aircraft launch facilities and a
radar tracking system. The island is closed to the public, making the isolated environment
ideal for military operations and training in addition to being home to many
sensitive species.

“The Navy most likely brought the cats over as pets in the early 1950s, and some escaped or were left behind by military personnel returning to the mainland, causing the population to grow and impact the native species,” said Martin K. Ruane, the natural resource program manager for Naval Base Ventura County.

The cats affect the native species on the island by preying on island night lizards, shorebirds and young seabirds. The native deer mouse is food for the San Nicolas island fox, and the cats were eating this main staple, with this competition for resources causing an additional threat to the already threatened species.

The coalition of environmental groups came up with a solution that not only met the needs of the different parties but also successfully took the ongoing challenge to remove the non-native feral cats from the island without having to kill them.

The Montrose Settlement Trustee Council provided $3 million in funding, which included environmental planning , research and support with logistical hurdles that were required to complete this project.

“I would like to give special recognition to the Montrose Settlement Trustee Council, who funded this project, as we would not be here today on this momentous occasion without them,” said Capt. James J. McHugh IV, the commanding officer at the time for Naval Base Ventura County.

“The removal of cats from San Nicolas Island is an enormous complement to our ongoing Natural Resource Management Program for the island and will help restore the natural balance to the island’s ecosystem. As the project is now complete, it will undoubtedly benefit native island species, such as Brandt’s cormorants, where we have one of the largest nesting sites in the world.

The removal of cats will also benefit our listed species, such as the western snowy plover, island night lizard and the San Nicolas island fox.” The main purpose of this project was to help increase nesting success of seabirds by reducing depredation by cats. Traps were padded and modified to avoid harming cats or island fox that were captured. The feral cats were all successfully removed from the island with no signs of any left behind. The seabirds and other wildlife on the island will continue to be monitored annually.

“The cats were flown off the island to a facility the Humane Society had built in
Ramona, California,” Ruane said. “There were 66 cats removed from the island; 10
kittens were transferred and adopted. The cats have changed from a life of fending
for themselves on the island to living a comfortable life where they are taken care
of and fed. This is the largest island that cats have been removed from without using
poisons. This couldn’t have happened without the partnering agencies.”

Two years of follow-up monitoring using remote cameras did not detect any cats, and
the project is now deemed to be 100 percent cat-free. This is a great achievement for the
U.S. Navy, demonstrating the commitment of multiple agencies working together to
find common ground. 

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