Deer herd is larger each year

By Steve Estes

Though not a record-setter, 2012 has been a tough year on the diminutive, endangered Key Deer when the animals tangle with motorists.

According to National Key Deer Refuge Biologist Chad Anderson, 2011 set the high bar for Key Deer road kills when 150 of them were bumped off in collisions with cars.

“We don’t expect a new record this year,” said Anderson. “At least we hope we don’t get one.”

But he said that the time of year when road mortality is at its peak is November and December.

“That is the Key Deer rutting season and the males are moving around a lot looking for females,” he added.

He also said that the refuge has had several reports of bucks getting caught in fences as they roam around the island looking for females with which to mate.

Refuge personnel expect mortality numbers to stay high, said Anderson.

“Overall the trend is upward in herd population numbers,” said Anderson.

As the population increases, with no corresponding increase in forage range size, refuge officials say that the deer are being increasingly drawn into residential subdivisions where human intervention, either by deliberate feeding or by raiding trash cans for human morsels, is causing an inflated herd number.

Refuge officials also say that regardless of forage range status, the number of fawns spotted has remained consistent, “which means the population continues to rise,” said Anderson.

Another indicator of an increasing deer herd is the amount of proximity diseases managers are seeing in the herd, particularly those sub herds that don’t move around as frequently, like those on Long Beach Road.

“The frequency of disease is up, which tells us there are more deer and that they are being forced closer together in neighborhoods,” said Anderson.

All of those factors combine to tell herd managers the same thing they have been seeing for the last decade or more—that the deer herd is increasing in size despite losing forage range to human encroachment and to sea water encroachment.

Anderson said that sea level rise is already changing the landscape of the pinelands on Sugarloaf Key and managers expect that to continue to get worse if, as is being predicted, the rise accelerates in the coming decades.

“The Keys are one of the critical areas for the effects of sea level rise globally,” he said. “With a half meter of rise, the habitat of the Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit will be severely impacted and with a full meter of rise, the habitat of all the species in the Keys will be critically reduced.”

Although refuge personnel are already talking about how to safeguard the herd in the face of accelerating sea level rise, it’s “too early to do much detail planning.”

Herd managers expect to incrementally lose some of the less-than-perfect forage areas as waterfront areas transition to habitat types the deer don’t prefer with rising sea levels and with that additional loss of forage range, the only way the herd remains stable in size is if the deer increasingly move into the higher-elevation residential subdivisions and subsist on human hand outs. The consumption of human foods, however, carries its own risks of permanent change to the herd dynamics.

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