Federal wildlife officials have set up a series of cameras in the National Key Deer Refuge, but not for a reality television show or a nature program. The goal is to document the number of cats stalking prey in the refuge.
Chad Anderson, a refuge wildlife biologist, has placed 12 cameras throughout the refuge. The cameras are equipped with motion detectors, enabling them to snap photos when something moves.
The cameras have shown that cats are roaming through eight "priority patches," which are habitat for federally protected marsh rabbits, white-crown pigeons and other endangered species, Anderson said.
The images, nearly 7,000 snapped so far, also show that feral cats are in the same areas as the marsh rabbits and other wildlife, a fact that doesn't bode well for the endangered species. Feral and pet cats not only prey on rabbits and birds, their presence can influence the behavior of native species and they compete with them for food, Anderson said.
"They may not be able to graze freely," Anderson said. "This could limit the times they come out to forage. This could increase their time hiding."
Cats, appearing on 5 percent of the photos, were the third-most photographed animal, second to deer and raccoons. Marsh rabbits made up only 3 percent, Anderson said.
The refuge plans to follow up its work with a more in-depth study to get a better handle on the number of cats, Anderson said.
The study comes as the refuge is finalizing its predator management plan, which could lead to the trapping of cats, iguanas, opossums and other non-native species.
"This will give us better insight into the predator management plan," Anderson said. "We want it to be as effective and efficient as possible."
Refuge managers had planned to start trapping in February, but they have postponed implementing the trapping program until they can write a response to public comments and send it to stakeholders, according to Anne Morkill, manager of national wildlife refuges in the Keys. They have received about 6,000 emails and comments, in which the reaction to trapping was mixed.
Wildlife conservation groups such as the Sierra Club, Audubon of Florida and National Wildlife Federation have supported trapping. In a joint letter, the groups called trapping a necessary measure to protect endangered birds and other native animals, and commended refuge managers for using the "best available science."
Research indicates that cat predation accounts for 50 percent to 77 percent of the deaths of Lower Keys marsh rabbits and Key Largo woodrats.
The groups also note that more than 250 species of birds inhabit refuges in the Keys and need protection.
Trapping opponents have questioned the science and argued that animals such as raccoons would not be targeted. Some have expressed concern that trapped animals would be killed instead of taken to a facility for adoption.
Anderson said the trapping program will begin soon.