A Key deer forages for food in the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. The fate of the population following Hurricane Irma remains uncertain. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)
If there were a contest to name the Florida Keys' most beloved animals, Hemingway's six-toed cats would probably claw their way to first place. But not far behind would be the Key deer, a petite and endangered species that has existed on the narrow island chain, and nowhere else, since the end of the last ice age.
The deer have legions of fans, particularly among locals. Part of the appeal is their toylike size, about as big as large dogs, and part of it is their story. After poaching and habitat loss led to their near extinction in the 1950s, a federal recovery effort helped the deer population rebound to somewhere between 700 and 1,000. It hasn't always been easy: In the past year, they've battled a nasty flesh-eating screwworm that eventually killed 135 members of the fragile herd. Vehicles killed about the same number in 2016.
"People can't help but fall in love with the Key deer," said Dan Clark, who manages the 8,500-acre National Key Deer Refuge and three other wildlife refuges in the keys. "I think there are people in the Florida Keys who care about them more than they care about their own pets and family members."
Unsurprisingly, as Hurricane Irma bore down on and then smashed into the lower keys, where most of the animals live, Key deer enthusiasts were seriously worried.
By Monday, there was a sign of hope. David Sutta, a reporter for CBS in Miami, shared a video of a trotting quartet of deer on Big Pine Key, where the refuge sits.
But Sutta described the surrounding scene as dire. "For lack of a better word, a bomb went off," he reported. Video shot Tuesday by WeatherNation showed a wind-torn tableau of debris, roofless buildings and tossed boats across Big Pine.
So did the deer survive the storm?
Sutta's video certainly means they're not extinct. But how the overall population fared remains to be seen, Clark said. Clark, like 18 colleagues, had to evacuate the Keys on Wednesday, and he hasn't yet been able to return. He doesn't know whether own his house on Little Torch Key is intact, let alone whether the deer herd is.
But Clark is optimistic. Key deer, he noted, have been on the islands for 13,000 years, weathered many a previous hurricane and are strong swimmers. Evacuating the herd — which some fans have suggested should have been done — would have been impractical and might have caused some deer to die of stress, he said.
"They're wild animals that live in the wild, and deer are probably best able to prepare themselves," said Clark, speaking from Clearwater, Fla. "They can hunker down really well and they can move really well. We certainly expect that there's Key deer mortality, but we always have faith and confidence that they're going to do okay, because they have in the past."
The biggest immediate concern now is fresh water, though the nature of the storm — which dumped down fresh water — makes it unlikely the deer will go thirsty, he said. The deer eat more than 200 species of plants and have plenty of habitat, so food shouldn't be a problem, he said.
Key deer survived a flesh-eating screwworm infestation in the past year. (Garry Tucker/USFWS via Reuters)
Clark said he's more worried about other threatened and endangered species on the refuges he manages. Among the most vulnerable are Lower Keys marsh rabbits, whose little legs would have prevented them from moving fast or far to seek shelter. The very rare Miami blue butterfly, which was thought to have gone extinct after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, might also be in trouble.
"They exist in very small pockets," Clark said. "Their host plants could be damaged."
What's more, Clark said, a disturbed, post-hurricane environment can be a welcome mat for invasive plants and animals, both of which can harm their native species. Preventing them from getting a foothold will be a priority for Clark and his team once they're able to return to the keys.
Hurricane damage aside, Key deer aren't out of the woods. Cars remain a threat, as do what Clark referred to as "inappropriate human interactions." This summer, two men were arrested after authorities found three Key deer hogtied in their car; one animal was injured so badly that it had to be euthanized. In the long-term, their top challenge will be climate change and rising sea levels, he said.
But Clark said the Key deer population's growth rate, about 3 percent a year, has given it a cushion that could help it weather the storm.
"They may be in better shape than me," Clark said. "I need a house and food and A/C, and they're just out there in it."
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