Board of Game turns down feral cat proposal

Colonies of domestic feral cats occupy corners of Alaska, and after the state Board of Game turned down two proposals Friday related to controlling their numbers, things will continue for them unchanged for now.

The board, which has authority over which species are legal to be hunted or released into the wild, denied a proposal at its meeting Friday that would have allowed people to trap, neuter and release feral cats and took no action on another that would have expressly prohibited trap-neuter-release programs. The board members, citing concerns about disease and the predation on birds and small mammals, unanimously denied the first proposal.

Both proposals raised concerns about the number of feral cats in the state but took widely varying stances on how to control them. The first proposal, submitted by Anchorage resident Shannon Basner, founder of cat rescue organization Mojo’s Hope, asked the board to make an exception to the rules about which animals are allowed to be released into the wild. Under her proposal, people would be allowed to trap, neuter and release feral cats in an attempt to control the populations of feral cats in the state. Neutering them prevents them from reproducing and saves the cost of euthanizing them, as well as preventing something called the “vacuum effect” of remaining cats in the colony breeding to fill the capacity, she wrote.

One group in Anchorage already regularly receives requests to trap feral cats a few times a month, she wrote.

“Since (trap-neuter-release) is illegal, they must limit their actions to kittens who are young enough to be socialized and cats who are most likely domesticated strays,” she wrote. “When the group explains the limited options for most of these community cats, finders are typically unwilling to trap the cats/kittens and take them to the animal control to be killed.”

The second proposal, submitted by Frederick Minshall, was expressly designed to contradict Basner’s proposal. Minshall wrote that trap-neuter-return programs have not helped reduce feral cat populations in other areas where they have been implemented and that maintaining feral cat colonies can pose threats to wildlife and people from the diseases cats can carry and their predation on small wildlife.

“The irresponsible practice of trapping, neutering, vaccinating and then returning feral cats to where they were trapped represents egregious threats to public health and wildlife conservation, and does nothing whatsoever to reduce feral cat presence in our environment — quite the opposite,” he wrote.

More than 100 people submitted public comments about the two proposals, and more than 100 people attended the meeting’s first few days to give an opinion. Many cited scientific evidence submitted in support of both proposals, much of which was contradictory — one side presented peer-reviewed scientific papers that supported trap-neuter-return programs and the other side submitted peer-reviewed papers refuting it. Board chairman Ted Spraker noted that it was odd to have such contradictory evidence.

“I thought that was pretty interesting because when you look at science, everybody should at least come close to the same conclusion,” he said.

Board vice chairman Nate Turner said he appreciated the passion with which proponents argued for the program but that the board’s first obligation was to protect the state’s wild animal populations. Feral cats around the world have been connected with increased predation on native bird populations and rodents.

“As a wildlife manager for my entire career, I cannot see how we can pass this in good faith,” Turner said. “The incredible impact … that feral cats have outside the house is documented in many, many places. It is in the billions. Literally.”

The board members similarly decided not to take any action on the second proposal, though they discussed where the line falls for cats being considered “deleterious exotic wildlife,” or harmful invasive species. The proposal asked the board to classify feral cats as “vermin” and allow people to harvest them with no bag limit and no closed season.

An Alaska Supreme Court decision ruled that the board could not classify an animal known to be owned as feral game, though an animal without a clear owner could be. Board member Larry Van Daele said the board would have to be careful if they chose to define feral cats as deleterious exotic wildlife because it posed the risk of people killing others’ pet cats if they didn’t know if there was an owner. A statute related to feral dogs provides that someone who wants to kill the animal has to put a reasonable effort into finding the owner first, he said.

Spraker noted that feral cats were different than the other classified deleterious exotic wildlife the board currently deals with. Not changing the definition would leave them as feral domestic animals, like the rabbits that have escaped or been released and formed colonies in areas like Juneau, he said.

“We’re certainly not encouraging people to go out and start shooting these cats if they think they’re feral. Try to contact the owner, try to do the right things, take a little bit of time with what you’re trying to do. But then again, if there are feral cats that are clearly feral … that’s a case where I can see where a person can dispatch one of these cats and it shouldn’t be a question of penalty associated with that,” he said. “But don’t go through the neighborhood shooting cats.”

The board voted to take no action and concluded its meeting Friday.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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