More education needed on Key Deer

By Steve Estes

Key Deer deaths from human-related causes are at all time highs on Big Pine Key. And there is so much we can do about that.

More than 150 endangered Key Deer were killed in 2012 by collisions with vehicles on the streets of Big Pine Key. If you believe the census handed out by the National Key Deer Refuge, that means 20 percent or more of the entire herd on Big Pine and No Name Key were killed just last year.

While we’re sure that the number of deer exceeds the estimates we’re given, that still a large number of the diminutive animals that die by our hands every year.

And the number of deer killed by collisions has trended upward for the last five or six years.

The reasons given for that are many.

Refuge managers tell us that young bucks, booted out of their home range by older males protecting their turf, have been forced to roam further from the inner island areas, often looking for territory of their own south of US 1.

In crossing US 1 to reach uncharted territory, the youngsters meet their maker on the grill of a human driven vehicle.

We’re told that because the herd numbers are larger than at many times in the past, maybe any time in the past, the deer travel further for good forage, sometimes necessitating a trip across US 1to find good eats, but with the possibility of a date with a car grill always a possibility.

We’re also told that because humans have such animal-loving hearts and we tend to feed any animal that looks hungry, the deer herd is developing a racial memory that tells the youngsters that good food, good tasting, not good for them, can be found from handouts given by those strange, two-legged creatures that travel around the islands by foot, bike or car.

And in looking for handouts, the deer go where they know they can find compassionate humans who will fall prey to their big, sad, brown eyes and fork over some food.

That is often US 1. And a date with a car grill is a possibility.

The deadliest spot on Big Pine Key for Key Deer when it comes to meeting up with car grills is the curve at St. Peter Church. The vacant lands surrounding W. Cahill St. is another hot spot for deer/vehicle collisions.

The long stretch of US 1 after St. Peter to the Big Pine Fishing Lodge used to be the number one killing zone for deer.

The state Department of Transportation built an elevated road, fenced it off and lowered the nighttime speed limit to 35 miles per hour.

That worked as far as it went.

But hundred of years of racial memory kept pushing deer to cross US 1 at that location, even before US1 came into being. With fences blocking their preferred path,the deer sought alternatives. Where the fences ended, the kill zone began anew.

Of course, we’re told that racial memory has also played a part in saving some deer as the older deer pass on the danger of human roads to their offspring and those offspring, instead of seeking new digs south of US 1, retreat further north on the island to avoid the kill zone that is US 1.

And that brings them in contact with the major percentage of the population on Big Pine where more than 80 percent of the people who call the island home live north of US 1, with more than 50 percent of those living somewhere off Key Deer Blvd.

The deer get introduced to compassionate humans, on foot, on bikes or in cars—humans that willingly fork over some fresh human food to the four-legged cuties—teaching the deer again that humans are an easy source of food.

The deer see humans on the road, they approach the road looking for a handout, they come body to grill with a moving piece of Detroit iron.

Both the refuge, Monroe County and the local Chamber of Commerce constantly remind people that Big Pine and No Name are host islands to the major portion of the endangered Key Deer herd. Those groups also constantly barrage travelers and permanent residents with information about the pitfalls of calling a Key Deer by a pet name and feeding it easy food…food that isn’t great for the digestive health of the deer anyway.

It is illegal to feed Key Deer.

That doesn’t stop those who will, or those who would given the opportunity. While Monroe County has an impressive, but still too small, stable of law enforcement personnel, keeping an eye out  for folks feeding Key Deer isn’t at the top of anyone’s list.

So it is up to us to spread the word to those we meet that feeding the deer may only serve to hasten their individual demise, potentially leading to a species demise.

It is up to us to fabricate effective trash-can corrals so the deer don’t make an easy meal out of our dinner leftovers before Waste Management comes calling.

It is up to us to look the other way when the deer come poking in the yard and hit us with those baby browns so we don’t hand over a free meal.

It is up to us to do what we can to reverse a hundred years of racial memory.

But we’ll need help.

Monroe County needs to step up its visitor and resident education programs to raise the awareness of the dangers of feeding deer. The refuge needs to step up  its public education efforts along the same lines.

The two groups need to work in concert to find an effective solution that doesn’t involve prohibiting human habitation on Big Pine and No Name Key after the current generations die off.

Grants to fabricate and install deer-proof trash cans is something both groups can pursue. Grants to be able to spend a few bucks on public awareness campaigns wouldn’t hurt. Grants to increase a law enforcement presence for a short time to crack down on deer feeding wouldn’t hurt.

We know we’ll probably never get the backing of a county commission to spend other taxpayer’s dollars to combat the deer/vehicle collision problem, but spending a few dollars in an attempt to bring in outside dollars seems like a no-brainer.

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