CAPE MAY - After nearly a year of conflict that pitted cat lovers against bird lovers in one of North America's prime bird-watching spots, the City Council yesterday approved a plan to move feral cat colonies 1,000 feet away from the beach.
The move was made to protect endangered birds such as the piping plover and the least tern, which nest in the sandy ruts on Cape May's popular beach.
Federal environmental officials threatened to withhold beach-replenishment money if the city refused to protect the birds.
"It's important to protect our beaches," Councilwoman Linda Steenrod said. "At the same time, it's important to protect life. That means all life. I think we have a good compromise."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had wanted the colonies banned within one mile of the beach, which would have eliminated wild cats in Cape May. The compromise calls for creating a 1,000-foot buffer zone at known bird nesting grounds, while letting the city continue its trap, neuter and release program.
That program has cut Cape May's wild cat population from 450 to about 100 in the last decade.
Becky Robinson, president of Alley Cat Allies, a national advocacy group, said Cape May's cat-control program was a worldwide model.
"To hold beach-replenishment money over the heads of a city that has done everything right is simply misguided," she said.
About 40 cat lovers picketed outside City Hall before yesterday's vote, chanting: "Feral cats won't go away. Revise the plan and let them stay."
Melissa Holroyd, who has trapped 53 wild cats since November and paid to have them neutered, said the compromise was a good one.
"This is such an emotional issue here," she said. "I can feel my heart racing right now, but continuing to trap, neuter and release is a step in the right direction."
Deputy Mayor Neils Favre received 600 e-mails against the cat-relocation plan on a single day last month, he said. He said the compromise left the door open for city, federal or state wildlife officials to revisit the plan.
Federal authorities have said they believe the compromise still allows wild cats too close to nesting birds, but are willing to try it for a few months this spring and summer.
"We're still protecting the endangered wildlife on our beaches and still getting our beach replenishment to continue," Favre said.