NORTH KEY LARGO -- The steady eradication of the endangered Key Largo woodrat by feral cats has been occurring for years in Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
But in recent weeks, the refuge's manager has also assigned blame to local pet owners who let their cats roam outdoors. Refuge officials are now planning to fine cat owners whose pets are repeat visitors to refuge property.
"I hope this encourages cat owners to start acting," refuge manager Jeremy Dixon said.
The action, however, may not sit well with a gated community to the north of the refuge that is home to hundreds of stray cats.
Since taking over management of the refuge, Dixon has made saving the woodrat his top priority. The federally protected woodrat plays a key role in the local hardwood hammock ecosystem by dispersing native plant seeds and serving as food for native species, such as snakes and owls.
According to Dixon, after a first offense warning, the owner of a cat that has trespassed on the wildlife refuge will be issued a $175 fine. The cat owner will be determined by tag or microchip information.
Dixon said the law is already on the books, and when a cat is found, he will contact a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement agent to deal with the cat owner.
Recently, Dixon placed lit signs along Country Road 905, which separates the refuge from Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, urging cat owners to protect endangered wildlife.
He says cats from nearby Ocean Reef Club are coming onto refuge property to kill woodrats.
"[Ocean Reef] doesn't seem to be helping us with what's going on," Dixon said. "They have been warned."
Ocean Reef has about 100 cats living at its ORCAT facility and 200 more that roam the gated, residential community, according to the ORCAT spay, neuter and release program. After visiting ORCAT, the cats are tagged and can be traced back to the community.
David Ritz, president of the Ocean Reef Community Association and a founding member of ORCAT, took umbrage to Dixon's claims that Ocean Reef cats are raiding the refuge. He said the opposite is true -- that 61 feral cats from the refuge have been recorded entering Ocean Reef during the past five years.
"Should Ocean Reef start charging the refuge when that happens?" Ritz said. "We're not."
Dixon says he has evidence, too.
"We have theirs and we do see them on camera," Dixon said of Ocean Reef cats. "We see them constantly in [Dagny Johnson Key Largo Botanical State Park]."
Ritz countered: "That would be very rare."
Ritz claims the Key Largo woodrat population would already be extinct if it wasn't for the ORCAT program, which continues to reduce the breeding cat population. As for the woodrat, Ritz says cats are just one of the threats they face. Red ants and opossums, he says, are part of the problem, among other things.
"We care about the woodrats," he added.
Dixon said he is not trying to assign blame to just one community. He wants all cat owners in Key Largo and along County Road 905 to know about the new fines.
"It's not just about Ocean Reef, " he said. "It's all of Key Largo."
Dixon said woodrats have begun to frequent the volunteer-built nests on the refuge, which he says is an encouraging development.
In 1984, federal conservation officers placed the Key Largo woodrat on the endangered species list. Its primary habitat is now limited to federal and state protected lands in North Key Largo. Its population could be as small as 100, according to refuge officials.