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A small deer with two small emerging antlers lays on a slab of concrete while taking a drink of water from plastic tupperware.
Information icon A dehydrated Key deer drinks water provided by USFWS at National Key Deer Refuge. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Thirsty Key deer get a helping hand from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the public

Big Pine Key, FloridaKey deer, the lovably docile and locally iconic herbivores that meander across the piney marshlands and in-town streets of the Lower Keys, were hit hard by Hurricane Irma.

Some survivors seem listless and dehydrated a week after Irma wracked this hard-hit island, home to National Key Deer Refuge. The storm’s surge – 4 feet high in places – inundated freshwater drinking holes turning them salty and unpalatable. And the 180 mph winds lifted Atlantic Ocean water into the air and down onto the watering holes and vegetation that serves as deer food.

A small deer with two growing antlers drinks water from a modified milk jug.
A thirsty deer drinks water provided by USFWS at National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Reports began streaming in over the weekend to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of sick-looking deer crumpled in the marsh or zigzagging across roads. Something had to be done.

Tuesday, the Service, bucking long-standing policy, decided that residents may provide water to the deer. Fish and Wildlife workers may do the same. Feeding the deer, though, remains frowned upon.

“If the deer are suffering, we have the ability to provide fresh water to get them over the hump,” said Kate Watts, biologist for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex. “These deer just went through a screwworm infestation so their population is down. They’re an endangered species. And they’ve lost a ton of habitat in the storm. So it’s our duty to assist them whenever we can.”

The Service’s decision was applauded by Colleen Fuller, a deer lover on Big Pine who manages a Facebook page dedicated to North America’s smallest deer. The page’s followers have doubled to 1,800 since Irma. Most commenters worry about the Key deer’s future.

“I was up on No Name Key (on Sunday) and saw a couple of deer at the end of a road and they just looked at me like, ‘Are you going to help me?,’” Fuller said. “I did give them some fresh water. I’ll not lie. They drank it like they never drank water before. They were so thirsty.”

A tough year

About three-fourths of the dog-sized deer roam Big Pine and No Name Key as they have for 13,000 years. Poaching, urbanization, cars and truck collisions rendered the deer nearly extinct in the 1950s.

The Service, though, declared the Key deer an endangered species in 1967 and undertook an ambitious recovery program to rebuild its stock. Creation of the refuge, a decade earlier, largely ensured safe zones for the big-eyed, Bambi-like herbivores.

The deer population was estimated between 700 and 1,000 earlier this year. It’s been a bad year, though. An outbreak of screwworm disease, a fly-borne, flesh-eating parasite, killed about 135 of the animals. (Vehicles typically kill the same amount each year.) The keys were quarantined. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released millions of sterile flies across the Lower Keys. Refuge staff, joined by dozens of locals, dosed the deer with anti-parasitic chunks of bread.

The Service announced in April that the outbreak had been contained. Interacting so closely with the deer, though, conditions them to reliance on humans for food. It doesn’t help that residents also treat the deer as pets, watering, feeding, snuggling and taking selfies with the adorable creatures.

Irma was a huge blow to man and animal alike. Nine people died in the Keys. Roughly 25 percent of homes were ruined, 75 percent damaged. Power remains out on large chunks of the 120-mile long Keys, including swaths of Big Pine Key. A curfew remains in effect.

Two men work together to attach a tarp to a damaged roof.
Ricks and Jeff Van Vracken, an aquatic ecologist at the Panama City office, lay down a tarp on a National Key Deer Refuge home. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Some Key deer succumbed to the storm. Service personnel have tallied about a dozen deaths and have carted away deer from canals, roadsides and backyards. On an 8,500-acre refuge covered in mangrove marsh and piney wetlands, it’s impossible so far to fully account for the number of deer that didn’t survive Irma.

So the struggle turns to the living.

A reading of 10

Chris Eggleston spent Sunday traipsing around Big Pine and No Name keys testing water. He dropped a salinity gauge into roadside puddles, marsh bogs, mangrove swamps, mosquito ditches and the Blue Hole, a former limestone quarry and popular refuge attraction.

An USFWS employee in uniform looks at a small screen to register the salinity level of a small pond.
Chris Eggleston, project leader at the Southwest Louisiana NWR Complex tests salinity levels on the National Key Deer Refuge. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Freshwater registers zero parts per thousand. A reading of 10 or below is considered palatable enough for a deer to drink. The ocean registers about a 35 – very salty and unhealthy.

A small lake on No Name Key surrounded by wiregrass, saw palmettos and sea grapes seemed an ideal spot for deer to slake their thirst.

“This should be pretty fresh,” Eggleston, project leader at the Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex, surmised.

A USFWS employee in uniform tests salt levels in a puddle next to a low-hanging power line.
Chris Eggleston, project leader at the Southwest Louisiana NWR Complex, tests salinity levels near downed power lines on the National Key Deer Refuge. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

It registered 18.17.

“This is not good news,” he said.

The lowest reading Eggleston got: 15.73.

Irma’s waves and salt-infused rains ruined many of the Key deer’s watering holes. Rarely before, according to refuge biologists, have so many water sources turned so salty. Hurricane Wilma in 2005 brought a six-foot storm surge to Big Pine Key. The Service and locals set out water for the deer.

“I don’t know how many we saved or didn’t save, but they came up and drank the water so it worked,” said Kristie Killam, a park ranger on the refuge. Very little rain has fallen on the Keys since Irma. Key deer, consequently, may be dying of thirst.

Dan Clark, the refuge manager, said Wednesday the refuge had secured a source of water its biologists would put out for the Key deer and other thirsty animals. Service personnel will disperse shin-high tubs of water to more rural areas of the refuge. Clark acknowledged that the watery needs of residents remains of paramount importance. But if locals have water resources and want to help, the deer could use the help.

Not everybody agrees.

“We have too many deer,” said Robert Ehrig, a frequent Service critic who lives on Big Pine Key. “We may be beyond carrying capacity. It’s better to just get a stable healthy core (of deer). Let the natural process work.”

Fresh water, though, benefits other threatened and endangered species too like the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, Miami blue butterfly and the Key Largo cotton mouse. If they survived Irma’s hellacious winds – a dubious proposition – they’re probably thirsty.


Dan Chapman, Public affairs specialist, (404) 679-4028

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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