Environmentalists remove cats to protect native birds and they get an island overrun by rabbits

January 13, 2009

(ChattahBox) — Environmentalists eager to make sure native seabirds on the Australian island of Macquarie didn’t ‘go the way of the dodo bird’ tried to remove all the feral cats. Located about halfway between Australia and Antarctica, and known for its wind-swept landscape, and about 3.5 million seabirds and 80,000 elephant seals migrate there each year to breed, Macquarie was designated a World Heritage site in 1997. Authorities have struggled for decades to remove the nonnative species to Macquarie, cats, rabbits, rats and mice that were all likely introduced in the past 100 years by passing ships.

The invading predators menaced the native seabirds, so in 1995, the Parks and Wildlife Service of Tasmania that manages Macquarie tried to undo the damage by removing most of the cats. But the decision to eradicate the felines from Macquarie island allowed the rabbit population to explode and, in turn, destroy much of its fragile vegetation that birds depend on for cover, researchers said Tuesday. Removing the cats from Macquarie “caused environmental devastation” that will cost authorities 24 million Australian dollars ($16.2 million) to remedy, Dana Bergstrom of the Australian Antarctic Division and her colleagues wrote in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology.

“Our study shows that between 2000 and 2007, there has been widespread ecosystem devastation and decades of conservation effort compromised,” Bergstrom said in a statement.

The unintended consequences of the cat-removal project show the dangers of meddling with an ecosystem — even with the best of intentions, the study said.

“The lessons for conservation agencies globally is that interventions should be comprehensive, and include risk assessments to explicitly consider and plan for indirect effects, or face substantial subsequent costs,” Bergstrom said.

Several conservation groups, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Birds Australia, said the eradication effort did not go far enough and that the project should have taken aim at all the invasive mammals on the island at once.

The parks service now has a new plan to use technology and poisons that were not available a decade ago to eradicate rabbits, rats and mice from the island. Good luck with that!


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