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

The endangered key deer: no place to go

The Florida Keys is a globally unique ecosystem, one of the few places on Earth where you’ll find Caribbean creatures and habitats mixing with their cooler-weather counterparts.

It’s also one of the most imperiled places on the planet as sea levels continue rising.

A 2009 study by The Nature Conservancy forecast more than half of Big Pine Key, the island home of the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge, could be underwater by 2100. That’s using worst-case data from the International Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report.

Map of project sea level rise for Big Pine Key
Best case scenario sea level rise projections on Big Pine Key. Credit: The Nature Conservancy.

The refuge is home to the endangered Key deer, a smaller cousin of the white-tailed deer with a total population of about 700. Today, cars are the No. 1 threat to the diminutive deer. But as saltwater intrusion continues to take over their freshwater sources and eat away at their forest home — the globally imperiled pine rockland trees — rising seas are more likely to spell their doom.

“The Key deer would have no place to go,” refuge manager Anne Morkill said. “If they mix with their mainland counterparts, they will lose their genetic distinction and body characteristics.”

The Key deer is just one of the 26 threatened and endangered species found on the Key Deer refuge and three other small national wildlife refuges in the Florida Keys. Many are species that were isolated from the mainland 20,000 years ago.

“As the islands go, so go all the species,” Morkill said.

Learn more about Key deer and the refuge that protects them.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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