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

Key deer among many Florida Keys species facing Irma

Biologists will assess impact wildlife and plants when they return to the Keys

Less than a year after surviving a rugged screwworm infestation, the Florida Keys’ Key deer now must contend with Hurricane Irma. Some fans of the endangered species are worried.

Catastrophic storms like Irma raise questions about wildlife, nature and impacts to their populations. At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex, there are nearly 25 threatened and endangered wildlife and plants.

“When you know there are 130 mile-per-hour winds and 10 feet of storm surge shoving into the Keys, that’s big,” said Dan Clark, project leader for the complex. “Ten feet of storm surge would overwash Big Pine Key. The good thing about this area is that the storm surge that comes in will likely go away pretty quickly for us. There will be damage, but the water won’t persist.”

Key deer and Key Largo wood rat are wild animals. In the wild, they will prepare themselves as much as they can, just like people do. Clark said it’s important to consider what is most beneficial for the species in the wild.

“We are letting them be wild animals in the wild,” he said. “We believe the best ecological decision we can make is to keep them wild in the habitat they know.”

Key deer feed on over 100 different species of native plants; you can help keep the key deer population healthy by not feeding them. More information is available on the National Key Deer Refuge website.

Irma is not the first hurricane to visit Florida’s Keys. Hurricane Wilma brought a six-foot storm surge to Big Pine Key in 2005. And George brought extensive flooding to the keys in 1998.

At the end of the last ice age, Key deer were isolated in Florida’s Keys – a chain of roughly two dozen islands.

Today, Key deer are endangered and protected by the Endangered Species Act. And the last 15 months have been tough. First, they endured a significant screwworm infestation that ultimately claimed 135 Key deer. Another 135 were lost to vehicle collisions last year.

Recent population estimates since the screwworm outbreak concluded show the population of Key deer at between 700 and 1,000, about what the Service estimated the population to be before that infestation. And the fawn season this year was “really productive,” Clark added.

“We know the population increases about three percent annually,” Clark said.

When facing a catastrophic storm such as Irma, the Service has established priorities.

“First and foremost, we are concerned about human safety,” Clark said. “With any storm and particularly with one as historic as Irma, that is our first concern, and then securing buildings and assets on the refuges before evacuating to comply with the Monroe County evacuation order. We will return only when Monroe County emergency management officials tell us it is safe to do so.”

As soon as Clark and his biologists are cleared to return, the assessments of wildlife and buildings will begin. And they will have help. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will be a part of the assessments and recovery work that awaits them.

“We’re going to have to get back home and begin to assess the impacts of Irma to wildlife populations, habitat, and buildings on the refuges,” Clark said, adding “we’ve got to be sure it’s safe for our people first.”

“The good news is that we know sub-tropical habitats are really resilient and typically bounce back.”  


David Sutta of CBS Miami captures a video of several key deer on Big Pine Key after Hurricane Irma passed:

Daniel Clark, refuge manager at Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex will be joining Ira Plato on Science Friday to discuss the Hurricane Irma’s impacts on wildlife. The refuge complex includes Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, National Key Deer Refuge, Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge and Key West National Wildlife Refuge


Jeff Fleming, External Affairs, (404) 679-7287

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 Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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