The Trump administration is recommending that one of Florida’s most iconic wild creatures – the diminutive Key deer which roam in the state’s southern-most islands – lose protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The deer – which number 1,000 or less – occur nowhere else on Earth. They have been listed as endangered since 1967. The National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key was established in 1957 to protect the animals that some called “toy deer.”
The recommendation to strip the deer of protection under the Endangered Species Act is part of a three-year “work plan” from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s the first step in a longer bureaucratic process, which will involve public meetings (the first on August 22 in Marathon) and official notice in the Federal Register.
News about the possible stripping of protections for the Key deer comes the same week that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced sweeping changes to the entire Endangered Species Act which will weaken protections for thousands of imperiled creatures. Those changes are likely headed for a court battle.
In its initial notice about removing the Key deer from the endangered species list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service justifies its recommendation by saying “threats to this species have been eliminated or reduced to the point that the species no longer meets the definition of an endangered species or a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act,” according to letter written by Daniel Clark, manager of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex.
Yet Key deer face a cascading series of threats, including a parasite invasion which killed 15 percent of the population in 2016, rising sea level, and saltwater intrusion from climate change which is altering their habitat. The biggest source of mortality for the deer is getting hit by cars.
Saying the Key deer population is healthy enough to lose protections under the Endangered Species Act is “outrageous,” charged Jaclyn Lopez, Florida Director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The future of this sweet little deer just became far less secure,” Lopez said. “There’s no way a regular person could look at this situation and say that the Key deer has a chance of survival without our help.”
In the early 1950s, the Key deer population dwindled to only about 25. In the early 1900s, hunters flushed the deer from the brush and shot them on the beaches. Males weigh only about 85 pounds, females about 65. In 2017, a Monroe County sheriff’s deputy made a traffic stop and found something startling: Two men had captured the three endangered Key deer and stuffed them in their vehicle. The men were later charged for the crime, and one of the Key deer had to be euthanized due to its injuries.
The dog-sized deer are often put in harm’s way because they are gentle and people – unwisely – feed them, which can harm their delicate digestive tract. As the Keys continues to develop, habitat and the supply of natural fresh water holes has diminished.
“We know that the threats have not gone down and are increasing,” said Diana Umpierre, Organizing Representative for the Sierra Club’s Everglades Restoration Campaign. “I think the science and data prove that the Key deer still needs protection. And we’re going to fight this.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hosting a public information meeting about the Key deer’s protected status on Aug. 22, 2019 at the Marathon Key Government Center Emergency Operations Center Room (2798 Overseas Highway, Marathon, Fla.) starting at 6 p.m.