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  • Writer's pictureStaci-lee Sherwood

Florida’s Endangered Key Deer – is time running out to save them?

By Staci-lee Sherwood



The Florida Key Deer are a subspecies of the White-tailed Deer, only found on Big Pine to Sugarloaf Keys .  Their adorable diminutive size make them popular for people to photograph and watch.  We all know the more popular an animal the more prone they are to human caused problems it’s just a fact we can’t ignore.  Over the years human feeding of deer has led to many being raised without fear of humans they need to survive. 

 


Feeding wildlife isn’t just illegal it’s a slow way to kill them.  We humans never feed wild animals anything they would eat in the wild but instead processed crap food.  I’ve often said the food we give wildlife isn’t just toxic for them but for us as well since it’s mostly contaminated with pesticides/fillers/preservatives that neither we nor wild animals are able to digest.  Don’t feed them work towards restoring their natural habitat instead.  For more insight on this endangered species I spoke with Valerie Preziosi, President of Save Our Key Deer, Inc. a 501-c3 nonprofit. 



Deer are naturally skittish darting off in any direction when sensing danger.  Like most animals they’re curious about humans but prefer to watch from a safe hidden distance, often obscured by vegetation



A Key Deer buck watches over several grazing doe’s while keeping an eye out for danger



A curious young fawn plays peek-a-boo



Mother’s watchful eye on her young fawn



Doe’s form strong bonds with their offspring.  Approaching fawns can cause either the doe or fawn to take off leaving a young fawn to fend for themself. As adorable as they are it’s best to let them be and never approach them (that’s what binoculars and big camera lens are for).



I asked Valerie Preziosi about their breeding. “The vast majority of Key deer does have one fawn per year, starting in their 2nd year. Occasionally, twins are born. No recent studies of fawn survival rates have been done (why?). Back in the 1970s the biggest cause of fawn mortality was drowning in “mosquito ditches” , hundreds of miles of which were dug on several islands in the 1950s. Most of them have been filled-in since then, and now the biggest cause of fawn mortality is vehicle strikes.



Deer form strong family bonds that last a lifetime




Just how many deer are there?

According to the Florida Fish Wildlife Commission (FWC)  “As of February 2024, the Key deer population was estimated to be between 700 and 800 deer, with the largest concentrations on Big Pine Key and No Name Key. This population is considered stable, but the Key deer is still listed as a federally endangered species.”  Just to clarify who the FWC is, they are the state government agency with a nearly 1 billion budget and a terrible history of inflating numbers to paint a more rosy picture (as does the federal agency US Fish Wildlife).  After 11 years of working with sea turtles on 3 of their permits I know this to be true for sea turtles, panthers, manatees, black bears, goliath groupers…you get the picture.  Just how many deer are actually alive could be far less.

 


Preziosi added “The USFWS does indeed tend to inflate the Key deer numbers. The last carefully done deer count, organized by scientists from Texas A & M University, was done in March 2020 (SOKD was a participant) and resulted in an estimate of 748. With an estimated annual population growth rate of @3.2%, the existing number is about 800 or slightly less.”  Keep in mind about 100 deer die every year from car strikes.

 


What is a real refuge

When we think of a refuge we imagine a safe haven from noise, pollution, hunting and all human encroachment. The slightest human presence, no matter how sublime or short, does impact wildlife.  Wild animals can be affected by the tiniest of things like the click from a camera or leaving one’s hat on a trail.  To us these things might seem insignificant but to a wild animal they can alter their behavior leading them to abandon their nest, young or food. 

 


It’s unfortunate that in the U.S. about 60% of our ‘wildlife refugees’ allow for fishing and several national parks allow for hunting.  None of that is remotely considered conservation nor should they ever have a place in a refuge if we’re serious about conservation.  Our actions say we’re not serious we just like the façade.



What a refuge should look like, undisturbed and undeveloped.  A safe haven for wildlife, free from human interference or harassment



Unfortunately many homes, roads and other buildings are built right up to the border of refuge areas.  “The Refuge owns land on Big Pine, No Name and some other Keys. On Big Pine, Refuge areas are scattered throughout the island and total about 40% (my estimate).” Preziosi said.

 


A building sits right next to undeveloped refuge land at the end of Big Pine



All development impacts wildlife

Most deer live on Big Pine Key where much of the land is taken up by buildings, leaving just a small area at the end as undeveloped.  The rest of the refuge land is a patchwork of areas dotted with houses and roads.  Their once pristine island is no more.  Imagine if this was your home being swallowed up by buildings and cars with nowhere to graze but small hidden areas and front lawns.

 


‘progress’ never stops



Who is driving the development? Usually out of state people with no concern for the land/water/air they destroy.  Like most of us Preziosi knows it too “Corporations with big money! The locals are usually opposed to any further development whatsoever related to the need to preserve habitat for wildlife and because they don’t want the character of these precious islands to change.”

 


Imagine being a tiny deer trying to navigate around construction sites and ongoing traffic.



Can you spot the tiny fawn? A driver that’s speeding or looking at their phone can’t.  Photo credit John Coffin



Despite a posted 30 mph limit many deer are killed every year by cars.  To highlight the crisis of speeding cars, distracted drivers and people who just don’t give a  #$%@ I asked Valerie Preziosi about the fawn mortality.  According to her “3 tiny Key deer fawns were slaughtered by motor-vehicles on Fathers Day (6/19/24) and another one the very next day. Several more were struck and killed during the 10 day period following that! The hits I'm aware of happened on US-1 at Ships Way, Key Deer Blvd, Dr.s Arm, and Long Beach Drive.”  I find these deaths to be appalling don’t you?



Preziosi  added “12-16+% of the Key deer population are known to be killed or have to be euthanized each year from vehicle collisions, so well over 100 deer each year. In the past few years the Refuge has kept very incomplete records, blaming it on computer glitches, but earlier data are pretty consistent.” Hmmmm ‘computer glitches’……


 

In 2017 Big Pine Key took a direct hit from the mammoth Hurricane Irma and many areas are still recovering.



How many deer perished from Hurricane Irma?  Preziosi  said “From SOKD’s own surveys of residents immediately after the storm, our estimates were 35% of the entire Key deer population perished as the result of Irma, either directly in the storm or from dehydration after (there was no natural freshwater available after the storm surge overflowed the islands). The losses varied significantly with location: for example, the deer population on the Long Beach peninsula suffered 65% loss, but deer living at the very northern end of Big Pine Key had about 10% loss. The “official” loss estimate, based on post-storm surveys done by TAMU scientists, started at @ 25% loss, but subsequently increased to match SOKD’s estimates at “38 – 60%” (as per their Final Report).“  That’s a huge loss of life.



Despite the devastation from the hurricane that has not slowed development.  Now they just build new homes on stilts.  Why live on Big Pine if you’re not there for the deer?  There are dozens of other keys to move to.



Bleak future or is there hope

The long list of things that create a struggle for the Key Deer are;

·   human harassment (petting, feeding, taking of deer)

·   development that never stops

·   car collisions

·   loss of habitat/food/fresh water 

·   climate (extreme heat, drought, storms and floods), disease. 

· Screw worms and Johne’s starvation disease

 


What can we do to save the deer?

Slow down when driving is a BIG deal, right now .  Put out fresh water for them helps now. The future of rising tides is real whether people wish to hide in the sand or not it’s happening.  Science and reality show the deer will need to be relocated once their habitat is washed away but first they need to survive to mating season.  Preziosi adds that “The big problem is drinking water availability. Through the decades, human development has destroyed many natural freshwater sources. Sea level rise is only making the situation worse. SOKD is about to publish a peer-reviewed scientific paper documenting that for much of the year many Key deer are already dependent on human-related sources of fresh water, which alters their distribution and behavior. For more water-related info see the following article that we published in 2022:

 


Valerie Preziosi has been saving the key deer for years and sees the obvious “With all studies and model forecasts showing that sea level rise will inundate much of the Keys in the next 50-100 or so years, it is obvious the Key deer will lose their existing habitat. They will actually lose it much faster because of the lack of drinking water and effects of more frequent hurricanes. So the options are to either let them go extinct, or translocate them somewhere else. Short of just keeping a few isolated in zoos, the translocation areas will have to be free of other deer, otherwise they will interbreed and lose their unique genetic identity. While this somber forecast is pretty much accepted by all, the USFWS is doing nothing to plan and prepare for it, which is, in SOKD’s opinion, very irresponsible. Studies will need to be done to identify potential translocation areas, the potential impact of the new deer, and their survival potential.  This all takes time which we have relatively little of.”  Someone needs to tell USFWS  to do their job which we taxpayers pay for, I wonder why they’re not?



If we can’t save this precious species what can we save?



If you visit the National Key Deer Refuge remember this image and drive with care.



To learn more about these deer and how you can help click here www.SaveOurKeyDeer.org

 


Other ways to help -


Please take 5 minutes and call today



Important numbers to have


Click here to learn more about the fresh water crisis

 

 

 

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2 commentaires


McKenna Grace Fisher
McKenna Grace Fisher
6 days ago

~ Very informative and interesting sister ~ I appreciate having an opportunity to learn more about our beautiful Deer ~ Thank you so much ~ Vegan for the Animals ~ mgfⓋ ~ #veganfortheanimals

J'aime
Staci-lee Sherwood
Staci-lee Sherwood
4 days ago
En réponse à

Thanks McKenna

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