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Charting the Path Forward: AWC’s Evaluation of the Commonwealth’s Feral Cat Abatement Plan

02 Feb. 2024
W Lawler/AWC

Late last year, the Commonwealth released a draft plan for tackling the feral cat crisis. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) welcomes this plan as a step in the right direction, commending its comprehensive and pragmatic approach. Cats have caused profound species loss in Australia, giving Australia the worst mammal extinction rate of any country in modern times: over 10% of the Australian terrestrial mammal species extant 250 years ago are now extinct.

Given the devastating threat feral cats pose to Australia’s wildlife, and the government’s recent commitment to zero extinctions, AWC believes the plan should be more ambitious. Its goal – “to reduce the impacts of cats sufficiently to ensure the long-term viability of all affected native species” in the next 30 years—could be achieved in a fraction of our native species’ former range. This would leave extensive areas without a substantial component of their pre-European fauna, with knock-on consequences for ecosystems. In AWC’s view, the Commonwealth’s ambition should extend to a sufficient reduction in cat density across Australia to facilitate the landscape-scale restoration of species and ecosystem processes.

AWC would also like to see greater consultation from the Commonwealth with leading conservation organisations, as major interventions require high-level capacity and collaboration. The design of an expanded safe-haven network (Objective 2.3), for instance, needs to incorporate the existing plans and interests of leading conservation entities, such as AWC, who have the capacity to build, maintain and operate the infrastructure, reintroductions, and associated conservation science.

AWC seconds the Invasive Species Council’s stance, that “success depends on the Albanese Government stepping up to commit the $60 million in funding the plan says is needed over the next four years.”

 

AWC’s Chief Science Officer, Dr John Kanowski, offers the following feedback on some of the plan’s key objectives:

Refine the use of existing tools, and develop new tools, for directly controlling feral cats, and make the tools appropriately accessible

“We see an important role for the Commonwealth in facilitating and funding the development of novel tools, such as synthetic biology controls.

AWC supports research into improving outcomes for the release of cat-susceptible species outside safe havens, and we are conducting some of this work ourselves. However, concern about loss of predator-awareness in safe havens, and likewise, evidence for ‘rapid gain’ of antipredator mechanisms in native animals exposed to cat and fox predation, is often overstated. As such, we caution over-reliance on this approach, whereas feral predator-free areas are a proven conservation intervention.”

Protect the most cat-susceptible species: Remove and exclude cats from an expanded network of cat-free fenced and island havens, and manage those havens to maintain or enhance their conservation values.

“We believe the Commonwealth could assist organisations like AWC deliver an expanded safe-haven network, by:

  • Ensuring organisations like AWC are closely involved in designing an expanded network.
  • Co-funding the expansion of the network, ensuring that grant schemes are well-designed to ensure support is delivered to organisations with requisite technical and financial capacity.
  • Promoting improved governance of Recovery Teams, many of which are currently run by state agencies, to ensure that good private sector safe haven projects and associated reintroduction programs are supported rather than inhibited.”

Protect species with moderate to high susceptibility to cats: Suppress feral cat density in and near prioritised populations of these species

“Many species rated as ‘high’ (rather than ‘extreme’ susceptibility) are likely to require a mix of safe havens and releases to predator-suppressed ‘halo’ zones if they are to be reestablished in the arid/ semi-arid zone. Suppression alone won’t be enough. There is no evidence that ‘highly’ susceptible species, such as the Numbat, can persist outside safe havens in the arid/semi-arid zone.”

Reduce the burden of cat predation across all native species, with holistic management of habitat and species interactions over large areas

“While good habitat management is to be welcomed, to what extent good habitat management will be sufficient to ‘reduce the burden of cat predation’ for cat-susceptible species is poorly known. Where susceptible species have collapsed – there is little evidence that habitat management will be sufficient for recovery and particularly for reintroductions. Again, a mix of safe havens, coupled with predator suppression and habitat management outside safe havens, is likely to be required for many species.”

 

Read AWC’s response to the feral abatement plan in full.

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