On the rise
2012 sets record for deer deaths on roads

By Steve Estes

More deer were killed by vehicle collisions last year than at any time in the history of the National Key Deer Refuge.

According to Monroe County’s annual report to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 150 deer died due to vehicle strikes. Overall, 197 deer died in 2012, another record mortality count.

Under the terms of the Incidental Take Permit between Monroe County and the USFWS, if the ratio of deer killed by human causes to the number of deer counted by refuge personnel in regular road sightings tops 1.5, the refuge has options that include declaring a human development moratorium on Big Pine and No Name Keys until a method is devised to bring the ratio back down. The 2012 ratio was 2.73.

The majority of road kills occur at the end of the deer fences on US 1 at the curve in front of St. Peter Church and in front of the area where CVS and Walgreens are.

Another hot spot is the wooded area across from Strike Zone charters. The area on interior Big Pine with the worst deer kill record is Watson Blvd.

According to Refuge Manager Nancy Finley, the majority of kills are young bucks.

“That tells us that the young bucks are moving into new areas looking for a territory to call their own,” said Finley.

Finley said that the refuge isn’t really interested in getting into the legal issues surrounding a human development moratorium, “We would rather fix the problem.”

In a recent two-day span, three deer were killed by vehicle strikes.

The refuge has asked Monroe County to come up with some alternatives to what’s in place right now to protect the deer from vehicles. The majority of the remaining Key Deer herd is located on Big Pine and No Name Keys. There are smaller herds on Sugarloaf and Cudjoe Keys as a result of a translocation project several years ago, and recently deer have been spotted more often on the Torches and Ramrod than in years past.

That, says Monroe County Environmental Resources Coordinator Mike Roberts, actually shows that the size of the deer herd is increasing and the spike in vehicle collisions could be a result of that.

In published documents, the refuge states there are 750 deer in the core herds on Big Pine and No Name. Road counts seem to support a herd size that hasn’t changed significantly in the last eight to 10 years, but Roberts questions the methodology being used to count the herd.

“It’s obvious to us (county) that the census methodology needs to be refined so we get a better handle on the true number of deer,” said Roberts.

While the refuge hasn’t backed off its public assertion that the herd numbers around 750, herd managers do admit that the population of the endangered species is at or above carrying capacity for the islands.

That can happen for a couple of different reasons, says Finley.

“The deer have found an artificial food source to replace their normal forage that is artificially raising the carrying capacity of the islands,” she said.

The first of those is deer being fed by humans, and usually being fed food that doesn’t digest well for a deer.

“What humans consider treats for a deer isn’t usually on their natural diet,” said Finley. “But they’ll eat the food anyway.”

She also said that the deer are foraging more in trash cans than they have in the past.

“We still have some of the continuing issues with humans feeding the deer that we’ve had for years. Feeding deer may seem like the compassionate thing to do, but it only manifests in other issues,” said Finley.

She agreed that one of those issues could be increased road kills.

“The deer learn that humans are a good source of free handouts so they seek out humans, at home or in cars, and they equate that to free food. They stay close to the road waiting for a handout from a passing car and they get hit,” said Finley.

She also said that the refuge must work in cooperation with the county to get people to put up more effective trash can corrals so the deer can’t tip over a can and feast on the contents.

“We need to get the feeding issues resolved. This might be a case where we have to make examples of some folks who feed deer so we can embark on a ‘tough love’ scenario. We need to make the deer skittish around humans or seek easy food elsewhere,” said Finley.

Roberts said that the deer strike numbers actually have little correlation to human development over the last decade.

“Development has been flat and traffic counts to and through Big Pine have been flat, yet the deer kill numbers continue to rise,” said Roberts. “The data doesn’t bear out the premise that humans are totally responsible.”

There are a couple of immediate suggestions built into the ITP for when the kill ratio exceeds the cap, including increasing public awareness of feeding issues and possibly installing traffic calming devices on feeder roads to slow traffic in the interior portions of the islands.

County personnel are slated to meet with USFWS officials in mid-September and may bring suggestions for changes to current regulations to the Board of County Commissioners in October.

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