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Key deer population thrives on Wildlife refuge that carries its Name.

The male of North America's smallest deer stands just 30 inches (76 centimeters) at the shoulder and weighs 55 to 75 pounds (25 to 34 kilograms). Its life expectancy, on average, is just three years; most females live almost twice as long. By the 1950s, battered by habitat loss and more, the Key deer was in a critical state--only 25 individuals remained in Florida in 1951.

The outlook is vastly better today for the species that landed on the nation's first endangered species list in 1967.

Today, 800 to 1,000 Key deer are found on a couple dozen islands in the Lower Keys of Florida, from Big Pine Key down to Boca Chica Key. The deer's hopeful outlook is attributed to habitat conservation and other work by the National Key Deer Refuge, and the other refuges that are part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex.

Indeed, the Key deer's existence dates back to at least the early 1550s, when Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, a Spanish shipwreck survivor, wrote about the small descendent of white-tailed deer. Fontaneda lived among the Calusa and other tribes of Florida for 17 years after his ship smashed into Florida's coast around 1549.

The Key deer migrated to the Florida Keys from the mainland during the Wisconsin glaciation nearly 21,000 years ago. But it's recent history that has spelled trouble for the beloved animal.

The Key deer's range originally covered all of the lower Florida Keys. But widespread poaching in the late 1940s, habitat loss due to residential expansion, and the deer's proximity to people all took a toll on the deer by the 1950s. Established in 1957, the 9,200-acre (3,723 hectares) National Key Deer Refuge changed the fate of its namesake.

The refuge protects the pine rockland forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater and salt marsh wetlands, and mangrove forests Key deer need to thrive.

"The hunting that nearly caused extinction of the species was stopped even before Key Deer Refuge was established," says refuge biologist Katherine Watts. "But the deer requires these unique habitats. They are doing very well now, mostly through land protection and reduced driving speeds on the roadways."

According to Watts, improvements have been incremental. The refuge recognized the species' habitat needs and so protected pine rockland forests, which form on limestone outcroppings, and hardwood hammocks, which are dense stands of semi-tropical broad-leafed trees that are nestled in most Everglades ecosystems. The refuge worked with Monroe County and the Florida Highway Administration to install fencing along portions of U.S. Highway 1 and create an under-highway crossing, safeguarding the deer from heavy traffic.

No less important, the refuge has also worked with the local community to help visitors and residents understand that they can love the hugely-friendly deer too dearly.

"Local residents have bonded with the deer that roam through the neighborhood and into yards. The deer live on small, developed islands, and there isn't a lot a space where they can be totally wild," says Watts.

"Residents know individual animals by their antler configuration. They recognize their offspring.

And they have generally learned that they can't feed the deer, they shouldn't corral them in their yards and they should not have direct interactions."

Signs around the refuge and throughout the community convey the same messages to help keep the animals healthy and wild. The local chamber of commerce has been in the refuge's corner.

"One of the first questions visitors ask is where they can see Key deer," says Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce Executive director Susan Miller, whose organization so values the species that it is the subject of merchandise like t-shirts and charms and is part of its official logo. "We have signs posted across Big Pine Key, asking motorists to slow down and people not to engage with the deer. They're adorable and so 'domesticated' that they want to get up-close and personal with visitors."

The most recent challenge, a local screwworm infestation confirmed in September 2016, is now mostly eradicated. The screwworm lays its eggs in open wounds of living animals and, if not treated, typically leads to the death of the affected animal. Bucks were mainly affected, as they typically fight with other males, which results in injury, during the fall rut season. It was first screwworm infestation in the United States since the 1960s. The National Key Deer Refuge--working with other Service programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services--took quick and intensive action to stop the deadly outbreak.

USDA airlifted sterile flies from Panama twice weekly to kill the larvae, a process that will continue for some months. With the help of scores of refuge volunteers, more than 15,000 preventative doses an anti-parasitic medication were administered to healthy deer. Individual medication stations--feeding troughs rimmed with rollers that apply an anti-parasitic to the necks of feasting deer--were set up on heavily-used deer trails in remote parts of the refuge. Radio-telemetry is being used through the spring fawning season to gauge whether the screwworm is affecting the breeding females and their young.

While the deer's population numbers are healthy, according to Watts, questions remain. How many animals can thrive on these small, developed islands? Is there sufficient genetic diversity to ensure a vibrant herd in the future? Should the deer live only in natural environments, insulated from developed neighborhoods that are its current home?

Researchers from Texas A&M University and other partners are working to answer some of these questions. Others will be answered in time.

For now, the Key deer is an integral part of the community. "We are trying to continue to let the deer roam around the houses since that is the habitat that they are selecting and there aren't many other options," says Watts. "People here are accustomed to seeing the deer, and the deer have become accustomed to people over many generations."

Last updated: March 6, 2017

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Martha Nudel with the National Wildlife Refuge System's Division of Visitor Services and Communications can be reached at martha_nudel@fws.gov or 703-358-1858.

Caption: The federally endangered Key deer. Photo Credit: Credit: Garry Tucker/USFWS

Caption: A Key deer, in velvet, explores an area burned the previous day in a prescribed fire at National Key Deer NWR. Photo Credit: Josh O'Connor/USFWS
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Title Annotation:Ecological Services; National Key Deer Refuge, Florida
Author:Nudel, Martha
Publication:Endangered Species Bulletin
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Mar 22, 2017
Words:1248
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