File photo of a piping plover near their nesting area.

File photo of a piping plover near their nesting area. Credit: Uli Seit

A small colony of feral cats at Wantagh’s Jones Beach State Park has been taken to sanctuaries to protect nesting piping plovers, a tiny, native shorebird both the state and federal governments say could become extinct, officials said Tuesday.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation agreed to remove the 26 cats to settle a 2016 lawsuit brought by The American Bird Conservancy. The nonprofit, which has offices in Washington, D.C., said the parks department was violating the federal Endangered Species Act by insufficiently safeguarding the plovers.

The white and sandy shorebirds, which are about 5 to 7 inches tall and weigh 2 ounces or so when mature, winter in the Carolinas, Florida, and even the Bahamas, returning to Long Island in spring.

Starting in August, “The cats were removed humanely over time, in cooperation with cat caretakers who helped with trapping and locating acceptable shelters,” the parks department statement said.

The cats first were seen by veterinarians, it said. The Town of Hempstead took in four deemed adoptable; they now are with a caretaker. The rest were placed with Northwind Kennels, a Bedford-based group whose website features a nonprofit, Rescue Right, that says it has been helping feral cats since 2000.

The colony had become a flash point. Its defenders said the Field 10 location of the cats, which were well-fed, was too far from the piping plovers to prey on them.

Though not all bird lovers were convinced, they and colony defenders decried the way the cats were brought to the park: by people who abandoned their pets  there.

State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey said, “Jones Beach State Park is simply not an appropriate place for stray or abandoned cats.”  The settlement, she said in a statement, “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.”

Grant Sizemore, director of the American Bird Conservancy’s Invasive Species programs, said: “The protected plovers that nest at Jones Beach State Park — and many other species — will have one less threat to contend with, and the cats have a safer place to live out their lives.”

Becky Robinson, who founded Alley Cat Allies, a Bethesda, Maryland nonprofit, disagreed, terming the cats’ removal wrong-hearted and wrongheaded. “In choosing to settle this lawsuit instead of a trial where it would have won, New York has set itself up for failure,” she said, predicting the colony would be recreated.

The state should instead, continue with the “Trap-Neuter-Return,” policy, which colony caretakers were using with success, she said.

A parks spokesman said signs had been posted warning against abandoning cats, and any found outside the former colony would be removed.

People who abandon animals risk a sentence as long as a year, and a $1,000 fine, he said.

The latest tally of piping plovers that summered at Jones Beach was not immediately available.

Only half of all plovers survive their first year. In 2016, 381 breeding pairs came to New York, mostly to Long Island, and mostly to Jones Beach.

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