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A Key deer in velvet. Photo by USFWS.

Stimulus funds help determine future of endangered key deer at Florida Keys Refuge

The petite Key deer is dependent on fresh water in a place where fresh water can sometimes be scarce – the Florida Keys, the only place where the Key deer lives. At National Key Deer Refuge, fresh water collects in small ponds that form in the limestone, known as solution holes, providing life for the refuge’s federally listed Key deer population.

But are the solution holes plentiful enough, and fresh enough, to support the refuge’s deer? That question is being answered by two interns from the Student Conservation Association, whose project is being funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, popularly known as stimulus funds. Postgraduate student scientists Kristie Killam and Joshua Albritton are splitting a $50,000 stimulus contract to study the salinity and biodiversity of the refuge’s resource holes.

“These holes haven’t been thoroughly inventoried for almost 20 years,” said refuge manager Anne Morkill. “So they are doing a biological assessment of as many of these solution holes as they can.” More than 200 solution holes were located and hand-drawn on maps in the 1980s. Today, the interns are using the original maps to re-locate the holes, then marking their exact location using a GPS, and entering the data into a Geographic Information System.

“The way these holes work,” Morkill explained, “is that the Miami oolite limestone on top is less porous than the coral-like Key Largo limestone found elsewhere in the Keys, so rain water is captured in pond-like formations. But since the elevations are relatively low – an average of less than three feet above sea level – storm surges and rising sea levels are bringing more saltwater into these basins.”

Their work may help determine whether or not the fresh water holes on the refuge are being affected by climate change, and thus how climate change may ultimately affect the federally endangered Key deer and other native wildlife that rely on these critical water sources.

“All the refuges are having to deal with the climate change issue, especially coastal refuges like the Keys that are threatened by sea level rise, and come up with a management plan to deal with their consequences,” said Killam. “So our study will be used to compare salinity levels to readings taken in the past, and will also provide a baseline for future monitoring.”

Albritton and Killam measure the water in the holes for salinity, conductivity, dissolved oxygen and temperature. “Anything below 15 parts per thousand is drinkable,” said Albritton, referring to salinity measurement, “and anything above that, the Key deer are going to avoid that hole.”

In addition to measuring salinity, Killam and Albritton document evidence of wildlife at the solution holes. On Killam’s mental checklist:“ Were there birds in the trees? Were there herons or egrets feeding on the fish in the holes? Or were there raccoon tracks or tracks or scat of other animals?” The presence of invasive exotic species of plants and animals is also noted for follow-up control efforts.

Unfortunately they have also found something completely unconnected to the reason they were hired: Trash dumping on the refuge, sometimes in water holes used by wildlife. “In the past, when people didn’t necessarily have dumps or landfills or it was too expensive, they’d just pull their vehicles up and unfortunately dump stuff right in the solution holes,” said Killam.

“And it’s still going on,” she continued. “A lot of times you’ll see washing machine, dryers, TV sets, tires. You’d be surprised. So we monitor which holes have trash, and when a citizens group or a scout troop wants to do a volunteer project to support the refuge, we know where to point them.”

The National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957 to protect and preserve Key deer and other wildlife resources in the Florida Keys. The refuge headquarters and visitors center are located on Big Pine Key, and the refuge encompasses 9,200 acres scattered among dozens of islands that include pine rockland forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater wetlands, salt marsh wetlands, and mangrove forests. These natural communities are critical habitat for hundreds of endemic and migratory species including 17 federally-listed species.

The Recovery Act provides $280 million for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - which includes $115 million for construction, repair and energy efficiency retrofit projects at Service facilities, and $165 million for habitat restoration, deferred maintenance and capital improvement projects. Projects help create local jobs in the communities where they are located and around the United States, while stimulating long-term employment and economic opportunities for the American public. Recovery Act projects address long-standing priority needs identified by the Service through its capital planning process. The agency worked through a rigorous merit-based process to identify and prioritize investments meeting the criteria put forth in the Recovery Act: namely, that a project addresses the Department’s highest priority mission needs; generates the largest number of jobs in the shortest period of time; and creates lasting value for the American public.

For a full list of funded projects nationwide, go to the Department’s Recovery web site. The public will be able to follow the progress of each project on the recovery web site, which includes an interactive map that allows the public to track where and how the Department’s recovery dollars are being spent. In addition, the public can submit questions, comments or concerns at

For more information visit the National Key Deer Refuge website.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 547 national wildlife refuges1, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign and Native American tribal governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.


Division of Public Affairs External Affairs Telephone: 703-358-2220 Website:

  1. November 7, 2017 update: The refuge system has grown to more than 566 national wildlife refuges spanning approximately 100 million acres of lands and 750 million acres of oceans in the United States. [return]

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