Make sure our deer count right

By Steve Estes

First, let us say that there is very little call by anyone for huge development of any kind on Big Pine Key. The island is simply home to too many endangered species, and soon to be home to more, to make runaway development feasible, or even practical.

The level of growth slated for Big Pine is probably about right. There will be  another 100 or so homes built over the next 10 to 12 years, and there will probably be some business expansions but very little in the way of new commercial development.

Big Pine will get a national franchise chain restaurant for the first time in its history in the coming months as the Tom Thumb redevelopment on US 1 will feature the addition of a Subway.

But even that won’t be the island’s death knell as some have proclaimed over the years.

There is very little that can start another big development push on Big Pine Key.

But we think there is an issue that might bring pressures we don’t want to see.

For more than a decade, the National Key Deer Refuge and its parent agency the US Fish and Wildlife Service and its parent agency the Department of Interior, have insisted that the size of the endangered Key Deer herd has remained stable.

We may have to call them on this one.

The number of Key Deer kills by vehicle collision has been on the rise for about seven years, going up to the highest level in history last year. That’s a trend we expect to continue.

At one time, USFWS blamed human development for holding back the recovery of the deer herd from a low of about 50 animals in the mid-1950s to what the refuge claims is about 750 animals in the core herd today.

The problem with that premise these days is that human development on Big Pine has largely stagnated over that same seven year period. There have been no major commercial developments, in fact, the number of filled empty storefronts is just now beginning to recover from the crash of 2007/2008.

Of the 200 new homes allowed on Big Pine over 20 years through our agreement with USFWS,just under half have materialized.

High traffic counts were another reason given by USFWS when the Habitat Conservation Plan was formulated for the rather tight controls on human development.

Those same traffic counts are almost identical today to what they were seven years ago.

The speed limit on the island hasn’t changed. It’s still 45 miles per hour during daylight hours and 35 miles per hour during night hours.

We’ve added protective fencing at the east entrance to the island. We’ve widened the highway through town to eliminate, a little bit anyway, the frustrated rush off the island by visitors headed southbound.

Our permanent population has dwindled as more and more homes become enclaves for seasonal visitors or rental properties for investors hoping to turn a buck in the future with a spectacular resale.

Our seasonal population remains just about where it was seven years ago.

So what’s the difference between the deer road kills then and the deer road kills now?

All that’s left appears to be population. Not human population. Deer population.

The refuge uses an agreed-upon method to count the herd. That method involves driving a set route at set times and counting the number of deer seen to extrapolate the total population.

The method has become woefully inadequate for a number of reasons.

If the refuge wants to engage us in serious talks about the human future on Big Pine Key, they are going to have to find some way to come up with some serious numbers regarding population, both numerically and in terms of density.

How can we be expected to design mitigation measures for a program of which we are unsure the size and scope?

The first step for both is a vigorous public awareness campaign to again warn people of the dangers of feeding the deer, both to the animal’s digestive tracts and to their physical well being. The second is for both sides to understand that un-contained trash cans are a large part of the problem. Trash cans next to bus stops are a good idea, but not if they are readily available for raiding by deer.

These are simple steps.

The hard part is going to be finding a way to pay for a true census of the deer herd. It’s hard to agree to painful mitigation requirements when we have no idea what the baseline number is for the herd.

No one wants to knock off deer for any reason.

But before we can design effective programs to combat road kills and proximity diseases,we have to have good numbers to outline the problem.

Our county officials and our refuge officials need to find a way to collaboratively conduct an accurate, current census, complete with neighborhood and density statistics.

Then we have a place to start.

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