Refuge working on new deer recovery plan

By Steve Estes

Local US Fish and Wildlife service personnel, consultants from Penn State University and local activists plan to get together on a series of meetings beginning next month to flesh out an enhanced recovery plan for the endangered Key Deer.

The National Key Deer Refuge has been operating on a recovery plan for the Keys Deer that was developed in the last 1990s by researcher Roel Lopez. Using that general plan, the refuge has undertaken both water and habitat restoration project, and has completed at least two translocation projects that moved the deer from their primary herd location on Big Pine and No Name Key to Sugarloaf and Cudjoe Keys.

Though for a number of years the refuge has stood by its census count of 750 deer in the herd, most locals realize that anecdotal evidence says there are more deer than that roaming the two primary islands, not counting the 50 or 60 that now call the two western islands home.

The working group will be led by white-tail deer expert Duane Diefenbach, PhD, an adjunct professor of wildlife ecology at Penn State University. Diefenbach is well known in wildlife circles for his research on white-tail deer. The endangered Key Deer is a sub-species of the white-tail population.

Diefenbach says that the series of workshops will be to identify goals and objectives for maximizing the long-term survival of the species and minimize human-deer conflicts.

He calls this the first step to prioritizing actions to protect the Key Deer long term.

The research is being funded by the local refuge.

“The refuge is initiating this work to improve understanding and integration of community concerns and needs into the long-term management of Key Deer,” said Refuge Manager Nancy Finley.

The group already contains Lopez and Nova Silvy, both of whom have been instrumental in Key Deer studies in the past. The group also includes Marathon veterinarian Dr. Doug Mader as well as representatives from the Monroe County Growth Management Division, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Nature Conservancy and the local Key Deer Protection Alliance.

This working group is the next step to long-term survival of the endangered Key Deer herd which fell to what many believe is less than 50 animals in the 1950s due to predation and habitat encroachment. The National Key Deer Refuge was founded in 1957 to protect the species and it made the endangered list in 1967.

“We need to get a little better handle on the community concerns about the Key Deer herd. It’s sometimes a volatile situation, so we want to find out how the community feels about the animals,” said Finley.

Though there are some general parameters spelled out in the adopted recovery plan written by Lopez in 1999, this group is expected to refine those generalities.

“We have no set ideas going in to this,” said Finley. “The three workshops are basically a fact-finding mission.”

Once the public input has been gathered, she said the consultants will compile that information into a synopsis report and bring it back to the working group and the refuge for the development of actual action items to implement as part of the continuing recovery plan, says Finley.

“We are trying to get all the stakeholders on the same page regarding how we move forward with the deer recovery effort and minimize where we can the human/deer impacts,” she said.

The first phase will be to establish objectives. “We want to get the refuge in  tune with the community concerns,” she added.

She already knows there are human/deer interaction concerns such as road kills and illegal feeding, but there are also some health concerns with sporadic outbreaks of proximity diseases among the herd, and there are issues with a fragmented habitat resulting from human development over the last 50 years.

“We don’t know yet what will float to the top as the primary issues,” said Finley.

Objectives that may come from the workshops could include disease reduction. It might point to more translocation as a viable recovery strategy.

“If our concerns say that habitat diversity is an issue,then we’ll know what to address in our refuge management plans going forward for the enhancement of the Key Deer herd,” said Finley.

The one thing Finley says she doesn’t envision coming from the project is more human regulation based on deer interactions.

“This is not a part of the revamping of the Habitat Conservation Plan process, although some of the things we discover may inform the HCP group so they can make better decisions,” said Finley.

“Our plan going forward will be based on the best decision for the herd,” she added. “If the report determines that herd maintenance is the answer to long-term survival, that gives us a different path for management plans. If the consensus is that we need to grow the herd, that gives a whole different set of parameters to work with.”

Though the refuge is home to at least a half dozen other endangered species, Finley says that this working group will focus solely on Key Deer.

“We did a Marsh Rabbit working group a few years back, and that was a time-consuming, manpower intensive effort,” said Finley. “We can’t try to encompass too much.”

The group will meet in two-day sessions three times between January and March.

“I would think we’ll get some solid objectives to build a plan around within the next year,” said Finley. “After that we present to our bosses and get their take.”

Translocation, disease prevention and vehicle strike prevention are prominently mentioned in the existing recovery plan, but there are also some lesser known strategies that could be explored in the future.

The refuge has worked on enhancing water holes around Big Pine for several years, and has worked on recovering habitat through both burning and mechanical clearing. But the current recovery plan also outlines the use of general contraceptives for the deer herd if maintenance to the existing forage range is the defined objective.

“That’s a possibility,” said Finley. “But so are a lot of other things. We won’t know until the process is complete.”

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