Prince George's County will be releasing rather than euthanizing some feral cats starting in January, thanks to a controversial change to its animal control policy.

The new law will allow "ear-tipped" cats -- those that have been trapped, vaccinated, neutered and returned to the outdoors -- to be released by animal welfare groups within 72 hours of impoundment. The ear-tipped designation comes from the quarter-inch cut off the cat's left ear to signify that it is safe.

"This is a very small legal step that saves lives and saves money," said Anne Benaroya, executive director of the Maryland Animal Law Center. "The current practices don't work."

According to a report from the county's Department of Environmental Resources, 11,542 cats were euthanized from 2009 to 2011, with about 37 percent of them feral. The county had a 300 percent increase in feral cat intakes over that period, from 410 in 2009 to 1,642 in 2011.

"We euthanize too many animals and need to do better," said Councilwoman Mary Lehman, D-Laurel, who introduced the proposal.

While supporters say that neutering feral cats allows the population to shrink without having to resort to killing, opponents of the bill remain skeptical.

"I understand the intention, but I think this protection comes at the expense of taxpayers," said Mount Rainier Code Enforcement Officer Kevin Simpson. "Property owners should not be subjected to sharing their property with ear-tipped cats."

Simpson said Mount Rainier has no animal control department, leaving it to rely on the county's 13 animal control officers when someone has a stray cat problem. Mount Rainier Mayor Malinda Miles came out against the change before it was approved, and the City Council voted unanimously to oppose it.

"We have a stray cat problem in Mount Rainier, and this bill will only make it worse," Simpson said.

Councilman Will Campos, who represents Mount Rainier, was the only council member to vote against the bill. "I never thought this would divide so many residents within our communities," he said. "I don't see how it is that we reduce the number of stray cats by releasing stray cats."

The county will not be trapping, vaccinating or neutering any cats -- that will stay left up to outside groups. Cats reported as a nuisance will be impounded, ear-tipped or not, and any ear-tipped cat captured three times will have to be released in a different area.