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A Key deer on Big Pine Key in Florida. Photo by Garry Tucker, USFWS.

Support and cooperation cure the New World screwworm infestation in the Keys

The unexpected New World screwworm infestation of the endangered Key deer confirmed September 30, 2016, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture was found on 13 Keys and led to 135 Key deer deaths. Screwworms are fly larvae or maggots that infest warm-blooded animals through open wounds and feed on living tissue. They were formerly eradicated from the U.S. in the 1960’s.

The herculean effort to eliminate screwworms and save the Key deer was recently celebrated at a public meeting on March 25, 2017. Lead agencies including the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Monroe County were present to celebrate and acknowledge the partnerships and supportive community involvement that led to the successes in New World screwworm eradication efforts. This has been a collaboration of international, federal, state, and local authorities with support from non-profit organizations, community leaders and businesses, and hundreds of citizens who have been integrally involved throughout the past six months.

Eradication of screwworm flies is achieved by releasing sterile flies, of which more than 470 million have been released. International guidelines require sterile fly releases for three life cycles past the last confirmed screwworm case to achieve eradication of the parasite. The flies average a 21-day life cycle and tend to stay in the areas where they are released. The last confirmed screwworm case was January 10, 2017. Service staff members and partners will continue to release sterile flies through April 25, 2017, which is five life cycles beyond the last confirmed case.

Key deer have been preventatively treated with an anti-parasitic medication weekly by remote self-medication stations or individually through oral medication treatments. Remote self-medication stations were closed in early March, and oral medication treatments ceased on April 10, 2017.

Ongoing efforts include community outreach and monitoring Key deer throughout peak fawning season. Monitoring efforts include distance sampling surveys, radio telemetry surveillance of collared does, and camera monitoring of deer in remote areas.

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