Endangered deer are a Keys success.
By Coralie Carlson
BIG PINE KEY – The tiny deer on this island rummage through garbage cans, graze in back yards and walk up to humans without fear.
Though they once numbered fewer than 50, experts say they now practically overrun Big Pine Key, about 30 miles east of Key West. Some say the population has rebounded so well that the animals should no longer be an endangered species.
The Key deer is the smallest subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer and stands less than 3 feet high at the shoulder. Believed to have migrated from the mainland thousands of years ago, the Key deer are found only on Big Pine Key and some surrounding Keys along the string of islands at the southern tip of Florida.
After half a century of conservation efforts, the population has grown to 500 to 700 and that number has remained stable for several years. In the wildlife refuge in Big Pine Key, where most of the deer live, visitors can take a dusk walk and see dozens of deer ambling about.
“People sort of overlook the fact that the deer as a species really is a success story,” said Roel Lopez, a Texas A&M University professor who has led most of the recent Key deer studies.
Big Pine Key now supports as many deer as it can, Lopez said. He thinks the species should be downlisted to threatened, because it is no longer at immediate risk of extinction.
There must be two additional stable deer populations before the federal government will consider downlisting them to a threatened species, said Bert Byers, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Scientists at the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge are trying to establish those two new populations on some of the deer’s historic habitat, nearby Sugarloaf and Cudjoe Keys, just south of Big Pine.
In a process called translocation, a handful of deer are placed into an 18-acre pen on their new Key for about six months, then released onto the island.
The first batch of three deer was released Dec. 22 and have remained on the island, said Bill Miller, deputy project leader for the refuge.
Another deer that was translocated but broke out of the corral in September also has stayed on the Key, he said. A fifth deer that was put in the pen cannot be tracked because its radio collar isn’t working.
The populations that officials are trying to establish on these two Keys are small – each Key can sustain only about 40 deer, Miller said.
The refuge hopes to move a total of 24 deer onto Sugarloaf over three years and they hope to move about the same number on Cudjoe Key, releasing the first batch at the end of the year, Miller said.
In addition to expanding the range of the deer, conservationists are trying to protect them from their No. 1 killer: automobiles.
About half of the total Key deer mortality is highway deaths, and half of those deaths happen on U.S. Highway 1, the main road through the Florida Keys, even though a 4-mile stretch of the road through Big Pine Key is a slow speed zone: 45 mph in daylight and 35 mph at night.
A $12 million deer underpass project is credited with saving more than a dozen deer in the first year. Two underpasses a mile apart were created for the deer to cross U.S. 1, and a fence between the underpasses prevents them from crossing the road. The underpasses were completed last January.
But the net total of deer saved on the road is only a handful, Lopez said. More deer have gone around the fences and been struck.
“It’s four or five deer that could make a difference,” he said. “It shows that there’s an honest effort being made.”
Catherine Owen, an environmental manager for the Florida Department of Transportation, said the underpass project was planned when state officials thought there were only about 300 deer.
When more accurate data showed the number was about twice that, officials decided to go ahead with the project anyway, she said. The American Association of State Transportation Officials honored it for best practices in environmental stewardship.
“It’s not perfect, as you can see, but I think it’s a success,” Owen said.