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Free-Ranging Feline Terminators Take Heavy Toll On Rural Wildlife

Kitty turns killer when allowed to roam, and in rural Wisconsin, that spells doom for native songbirds as well as mice and other pest species. Studies have shown that nearly all free-ranging cats even the well-fed ones kill wildlife. A particularly skilled free-ranging house cat may kill more than 1,000 wild animals a year.

Most cats aren”t this effective, but Wisconsin, with about 550,000 rural households, probably has more than a million rural free-ranging cats. Even 10 animals per cat amounts to a pretty big number. Unless we deal with it, the problem will get worse as more people (and their cats) move to the country, says Scott Craven, wildlife ecologist and extension wildlife specialist at UW-Madison”s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

A recent study estimated that the free-ranging cats wandering rural Wisconsin kill from 8 million to 217 million birds a year, with 39 million the best estimate. The national toll probably includes hundreds of millions of birds and more than a billion small mammals. (The estimates are broad because researchers used a range of estimates for both kill rates and numbers of cats, Craven notes.) While some of the kills are mice, rats and other pests, many are native songbirds and mammals whose populations are already stressed by habitat loss and other factors. Urban and suburban cats add to the toll, but rural cats do the most damage because they have access to the most wildlife.

People protect cats from disease, predation and competition, factors that control the levels of wild predators. When people provide cats with a dependable food supply, the cats” numbers aren”t influenced by their prey”s numbers. While native predators become scarce when their prey declines, cats remain abundant. And a full stomach does little to diminish a cat”s motivation to hunt, Craven adds.

Cats can also hurt native predators by outcompeting them for prey. Large numbers of cats reduce prey numbers for hawks and weasels, for example. Some parts of rural Wisconsin have more than 100 free-ranging cats per square mile several times the density of all mid-sized predators (e.g. foxes, skunks and raccoons) combined.

Several steps can help to reduce cat-induced carnage in the countryside: First, don”t support any more cats than you need for companionship or pest control, and do what you can to minimize their time outdoors. Judicious use of traps and pesticides will contribute more to successful rodent control than a few extra cats, according to Craven. Where possible, spay and neuter your cats to keep numbers down, he suggests. Don”t create free-ranging cats by releasing unwanted pets in the country.

John Coleman, a biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, Stan Temple, a CALS wildlife ecologist, and Craven have written “Cats and Wildlife A Conservation Dilemma.” The six-page publication reviews the cat/wildlife situation, suggests humane solutions, and includes 25 references for those seeking more information.

“Cats and Wildlife” will be available at county Extension offices or from Cooperative Extension Publications, (608) 262-3346. If you”d like to get more than 10 copies, please call Scott Craven at (608) 263-6325. “Cats and Wildlife” is also available on the World Wide Web at http://wildlife.wisc.edu/extension/catfly3.htm .