A soft brown mammal looking at the grass

The 10-year feral cat plan brings us closer to effectively protecting endangered wildlife

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek released a feral cat control plan.

Its aim is to reduce the destructive impact of cats on Australia’s wildlife, with a focus on protecting the most endangered species.

Cats kill more than 6 million Australian pets every day, and it’s a challenge to control them.

The plan released for public consultation has a ten-year vision at an estimated cost of A$60 million over the first five years. It could be a major step towards meeting Australia’s global commitments to end extinction.

Read more: ‘Gut-wrenching and infuriating’: why Australia is a world leader in mammal eradication, and what to do about it

Why do you control cats?

Unless we manage the impact of cats, most wildlife will continue to decline. Some will be driven to extinction, a sad and irreversible consequence for future generations and the ecosystem of which these creatures are a part.

Cats are multi-taskers and very active. A big cat can kill animals weighing up to 4kg – almost as big as the cat itself.

Since they arrived in Australia with Europeans, cats have spread to 99% of the country. Only certain islands and specially built protected areas are cat-free.

Most native animals cannot withstand the constant hunting pressure from cats. Affected species include more than 200 of Australia’s nationally threatened species and 37 migratory species.

A soft brown mammal looking at the grass
Pit bulls in the cat-free enclosure at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary where they have been reintroduced. Cats drove the species to extinction on the mainland.
Brad Leue / Australian Wildlife ConservancyCC BY

One in ten mammals that were around when cats arrived are now gone. The Cats played a major role in most of those 34-game losing streaks. And they continue to drive population declines and regional extinctions of affected species.

Cats also carry and spread a range of diseases. One of these, toxoplasmosis, can cause illness, behavioral disturbances and death in some mammals and birds. This disease, which is completely dependent on cats, can have serious consequences for livestock and human health.

Read more: Toxoplasmosis: how cats kill wildlife without lifting a claw

Technical response

The government’s new Endangerment Plan aims to coordinate national efforts to reduce the impacts of feral cats on wildlife. It follows extensive consultation with Indigenous conservation groups and First Nations organizations across the country, with members of the nation’s Feral Cat Taskforce, and with endangered species and cat management experts.

Since cats occur everywhere, affect many species and are rare and difficult to control, the plan is a strategy: we prioritize the areas and species where control cats will be most beneficial.

Some important achievements have been made in the last decade or so, and the plan builds on those.

A gray and white bird flies over the waves
Macquarie Island’s endangered pet population is recovering after the cats were exterminated.
JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

What are the most important things?

The aim of the plan is to improve the outcomes of native animals that are vulnerable and affected by the cat, including numbats, bettongs, bandicoots and seabirds that live on the island.

Building on recent successes, it includes priority measures to eradicate cats from islands and within conservation enclosures, as cats cannot re-enter these areas. These projects are important for native plant species, such as the stick-nest mouse and the mala (rufous hare-wallaby), which cannot continue with very few cats.

A small animal with orange fur is sitting on the black sand.
Populations of many mammals, such as the mala, cannot survive with low numbers of cats.
Wayne Lawler/Australian Wildlife ConservancyCC BY

The plan also prioritizes ongoing cat management in areas with significant populations of endangered species that are highly vulnerable to cats, but which can continue as long as cat numbers are kept low.

This method is important for species such as rock wallabies, which live in small, well-defined habitats, and mammals of south-west Australia, which can be protected from cats and foxes by annual poisoning.

A rare face with bright green plants behind it
The numbat is one of many animals native to south-west Australia that has a natural tolerance to toxic baits, as the active ingredient is found in local plants.
Helenabella/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Read more: This endangered marsupial survived a bushfire – then came the cats

Improving habitat management can also help reduce the impact of cats on large areas. For example, improving habitat in northern Australia’s tropical savannas, through better fire and livestock management, could reduce the impacts of cats and increase the number of mammals. Cats hunt effectively in areas with no vegetation, so better protection provides shelter from wildlife.

In southern Australia, reducing rabbit numbers also reduces cat numbers by removing easy food. This in turn reduces some stress on pets.

An orange cat with grass and a tree behind it
A feral cat found by a camera trap in the tropical savanna of Northern Australia.
Northern Territory GovernmentCC BY

Read more: The mystery of the Top End’s endangered wildlife, and unexpected sides

What else is in the plan?

The plan recommends updating laws and regulations for domestic animals and feral cats in all states and territories. For example, the plan includes actions to make pet cat control laws more consistent across the country and to encourage pet ownership. This means spaying the cats and keeping the cats contained so they can’t harm wildlife or breed cats that end up as feral cats.

a long-haired cat walks on green grass
Domestic cats can be effective hunters if they are allowed to roam outdoors.

Read more: Herding cats: councils’ efforts to protect wildlife from stray animals thwarted by government laws

Many of Australia’s last remaining habitats for endangered cat species, such as desert big cats, bilbies and night parrots, are in Protected Heritage Areas and other Indigenously managed lands. This plan outlines the practical support that conservationists need to help them manage cats.

Over the past few decades, we’ve learned a lot about the effects of cats and how best to manage them. But we are still a long way from cost-effective, continental solutions to protect wildlife. The plan identifies the need for new applied research and the development and testing of effective management tools.

Who is responsible?

Success will depend on focusing and improving the already significant efforts of governments, Indigenous and non-Indigenous land managers, environmental non-governmental organizations, business, civil society groups, researchers and the public.

The Australian Government will help deliver the plan by coordinating actions and making strategic investments in management and research.

Read more: One cat, one year, 110 native animals: lock up your pet, it’s a killing machine

Be part of the solution

Every Australian who cares about special wildlife has an interest in cat management.

Cat owners can help by starving their pet and keeping them inside or on the cat run at all times.

Landowners can help by removing litter that helps support feral cat colonies and managing habitat so native animals can thrive.

And make sure your local, state and federal government members know how much you care about wildlife.

The plan is available for public comment until December 11. Take a look, and have your say.

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