Start with an accurate deer countBy Steve Estes
As 2014 rolls into our sights, there is a lot of activity surrounding our herd of endangered Key Deer, from how to proceed with further recovery efforts to how to handle inevitable sea-level rise.
And the two appear to be at cross purposes with one another.
One recent study claims that sea level rise on the two islands with the primary deer herd, Big Pine Key and No Name Key, will inundate as much as 50 percent of the prime forage range for the Key Deer over the next 30 to 50 years.
Though the report doesn’t deal with other areas where Key Deer are located, the National Key Deer Refuge has already noticed some sea-level rise issues at its Cudjoe Key range and at its Sugarloaf Key range.
While Mother Nature does her thing with sea level rise, humans concerned about the future of the deer have begun the process of discussing long-range recovery efforts for the Key Deer.
The latter conversation must include the former,or any long-range plans may be moot after Mother Nature steps up to the table.
There is, however, one issue that must be settled before either conversation can take place with any degree of certainty.
The refuge is still using the number 750 for population of the endangered Key Deer.
That number was proposed by Roel Perez more than 10 years ago when the then-graduate student completed his radio-tagging study on the population density and dispersal of the deer herd on Big Pine and No Name Keys.
At first, the refuge refused to adopt that number, and as late as five years ago was still using its own estimate of 450 deer as a population number. Officials have since changed their position and now use the 750 number as a standard. But that number doesn’t include deer outside the core islands. We know that there are at lest 50 deer split between Cudjoe and Sugarloaf Keys. We know that there are deer on Little Torch and Ramrod Keys. We know this because people see them, and a visual sighting means that the animal is actually there.
And in the decade-plus that has passed since that census study’s completion, the refuge has stubbornly refused to fund another full-scale population census, citing the cost of doing so.
It is clear to most anyone who lives and works on Big Pine Key that there are more deer on the island than were here 10 years ago. The mortality numbers alone prove that the deer herd is increasing. There’s very little logic in believing that the deer numbers haven’t increased in 10 years, but we’re averaging killing about 20 percent of them every year.
So most of us choose not to believe that the herd hasn’t increased in size. Anecdotal evidence points to an increase in herd size in almost every measurable category. We’re told that the herd has reached carrying capacity for the amount of natural forage available to it on the core islands of Big Pine and No Name Keys.
What we don’t know is how many deer are supported by artificial means, also known as human feeding of deer. We know that there are deer feeding stations set up around the islands by well-meaning, if misguided, people. We know that trash cans are still a favorite target of deer. We know that fresh water lenses are supplemented by human watering stations.
There will be some decisions made about the future of the Key Deer herd in the coming months, decisions such as how to control the size of the herd if it has indeed reached its natural carrying capacity. We don’t know how successful the translocation projects to Cudjoe Key and Sugarloaf Key really were because we haven’t done an actual census of the herd in more than a decade.
So it’s time to get the one detail we will need to know before we can truly make decisions concerning the future of the Key Dee herd.
We need a verifiable census on the size of the herd. That number is necessary to make quantifiable decisions on the future management of the herd.
If we find that the number is actually less than the 750, we still have work to do in increasing the herd’s size to ensure long-term viability.
But, if we find, as we believe we would, that the number is 20 or 25 percent higher than the accepted herd size, we need to begin a totally different process to enhance habitat to support the size of the herd, whether that be an aggressive land purchase program funded at least in part by the refuge, or perhaps using a general contraceptive to maintain the size of the herd at the levels supported by existing habitat.
So we would urge the refuge to find the money, find the manpower, find a partner willing to participate with either of those, so that we can nail down just how many deer we’re talking about in this conversation to manage the future of the herd.
You can’t make decisions based on science if the underlying data is flawed, as we know it to be.
An accurate census of the deer herd, along with the accompanying demographic makeup of the herd, must be the first step in making defensible decisions into the future.