A small colony of feral cats accused of killing a threatened species of bird will be humanely removed from Wantagh's Jones Beach State Park and placed in a sanctuary or no-kill shelter under the terms of a settlement that ends a lawsuit brought by a bird advocacy group against the state parks department.
Two years ago, the Virginia-based American Bird Conservancy sued the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, arguing the cats were killing piping plovers, a threatened shorebird protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
The parks department denied it violated the Endangered Species Act.
Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey said in a statement that the cats did not belong at Jones Beach.
"We are pleased this agreement with the American Bird Conservancy strikes a sensible balance between protecting the piping plover and relocating the feral cats that have been dropped off in the park in as humane a manner as possible," Harvey said.
Tiny piping plovers, which the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says have been likened to "cotton balls on legs," breed on the Atlantic Coast during summer. Jones Beach typically draws most of the state's few hundred breeding pairs.
The court settlement was signed on Saturday by U.S. District Judge Arthur D. Spatt, according to the nonprofit Alley Cat Allies. The Bethesda, Maryland-based group filed a friend of the court brief that argued, in part, that the suit offered no evidence the cats were killing plovers.
The group's president and founder, Becky Robinson, said moving the cats may prove to be difficult.
“Relocating outdoor cats is not the easy fix some may expect," Robinson said. "These cats are bonded to their outdoor home and moving will be highly traumatic for them.”
But Mike Parr, president of the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy, said by telephone that both species won under the accord.
"I feel good we found a way to get the cats relocated to a place where they will be safe and happy and the birds won't be threatened," he said.
On a visit to the colony, he said he also saw other ground-feeding birds nearby who risked becoming prey.
Molly Armus, an Alley Cat Allies attorney, explained the settlement creates two classes of cats — the original 23, who all have been trapped, neutered and returned with small notches cut in their ears — and any new cats left at the park.
Parks workers must humanely and promptly remove all cats by March 31, 2019. If they cannot, the parks department will undertake its "best efforts to remove all cats as soon as is reasonably practicable," according to the settlement.
A fence around the cat colony will go up by Dec. 31 and only approved volunteers and park staff will be allowed to feed them, the settlement said.
Alley Cat Allies noted parks officials only need to locate a sanctuary — which has yet to be found — for the original 23.
"We're hoping with increased enforcement we will not see any abandoned strays but if there are any, we think it will be easier to adopt them because they are not ferals," said George Gorman, Long Island regional deputy director for the state parks.