Key Deer Prove Resilient Through Hurricane Irma

Oct 18, 2017

The endangered Key deer herd was already coming out of a tough year — the herd lost more than 100 animals to New World screwworm.

So when the eye of Hurricane Irma crossed the Lower Keys as a Category 4 storm, wildlife managers were worried. The Lower Keys is also the only place on the planet where Key deer live.

But recently completed population surveys came up with good news, said Dan Clark, manager of the four national wildlife refuges in the Keys, including Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge.

"The numbers are looking like we still have, even on Big Pine and No Name [keys], around 960 deer — which is a lot," Clark said. "It's a testament to their resiliency."

The deer probably survived by using "every different option as there are deer," Clark said. "Some of them will swim. Some of them will hunker down. Some of them will get behind stuff or hide in things."

The biggest concern immediately after Irma was whether the Key deer could find freshwater. But rains have replenished the freshwater lens in most of the deer habitat.
Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The biggest concern immediately after the storm was the lack of freshwater. The Lower Keys were inundated with a storm surge of saltwater. Refuge managers provided kiddie pools and other receptacles of freshwater to help the herd get through until rains replenished the freshwater lens.

And while water was welcome, refuge managers strongly discourage providing food for the deer. Pet food, cracked corn and other food put out by well-meaning people can harm the deer, either directly through ingestion or by encouraging them to venture close to roads where they are hit by cars.

The fall is the deer's annual breeding season, or rut, and biologists conducting surveys saw evidence of the deer out and about, Clark said.

"Even after the screwworm, anecdotally, we saw that there was a lot of fauns and we may see that this year, too," Clark said. "Deer in general, when they have a stress and they come back out of it, they tend to reproduce a lot."

Providing food for the Key deer can harm them, either by providing food they can't digest or encouraging them to hang out near roads.
Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

While the deer are the highest-profile endangered species in the Keys, the refuge is also responsible for protecting a host of other plants and animals that may not have fared as well in the storm, Clark said. 

Surveys are just starting to try to find out what happened to the various rare plants, butterflies and other animals, like the Lower Keys marsh rabbit.