What's Killing the Key Deer?

From land use to traffic, the deck is being stacked against this endangered species

  • Roger Di Silvestro
  • Feb 01, 1997

When the rains came that day to palm-shrouded Big Pine Key, the bulldozers were already lined up to go to work, cutting a road across this second-largest of the islands that make up the Florida Keys. At the same time, a phone was ringing in the Atlanta office of attorney David White, who was working on cases involving the National Wildlife Federation and the Florida Wildlife Federation.

"I got the call at 8 a.m.," he says. "By 2 p.m. I was in Miami pulling a judge away from a federal cocaine case."

By then, White had been joined by another Federation attorney, Henry Morgenstern. What he and Morgenstern wanted from the judge was an injunction to stop the road, which would bring heavy traffic into the National Key Deer Refuge, home to a diminutive, endangered subspecies of white-tailed deer unique to the Keys.

Traffic on roads penetrating deer habitat already was killing dozens of the animals yearly. The new road would compound the threat by putting 3,000 more vehicle trips per day on the road. This would tip the deer further toward extinction, the attorneys contended, and therefore was illegal under the Endangered Species Act.

The go-ahead to start construction of the road had come from the commissioners of Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys. The road was to be called Lytton's Way, named for a former county commissioner. It was designed to relieve traffic jams on Highway 1, the only road that runs the full length of the Keys. During winter months, a Saturday flea market on Big Pine backs up traffic for miles on Highway 1, an irritation to local residents tired of being stalled. Residents want an access road to get them around the jam. The access they had in mind in the late 1980s was Lytton's Way.

Local conservationists suggested elevating Highway 1 instead, allowing residents to travel under it. But businesses, fearing an elevated highway would siphon away transient customers, "went bananas," says Fred Manillo, a 17-year resident of Big Pine Key and a leader of the Key Deer Protection Alliance, Inc., a private group that seeks protection of the animals and their habitat.

The only thing that kept the bulldozers from cutting through the road that day was the rain, which gave the Federation lawyers time to present their case to the judge. The judge said he wanted to hear from the county commissioner's side of the debate, but the county attorney refused to attend the hearing. So the judge issued an injunction against the road, putting at least a temporary stop to it.

60 Years of Key Deer Controversy

The Key deer has been at the center of such controversies for at least 60 years, dating to a time when uncontrolled hunting was wiping out the species.

By 1950, the species had sunk to only an estimated 50 animals. Later, granted by Congress their own national wildlife refuge in 1957 and covered by the Endangered Species Act since 1967, the Key deer showed signs of recovery, reaching a peak of perhaps 400 animals in the 1970s.

In more recent years, however, the population has dwindled to no more than 300. The story behind the decline illustrates how weak implementation of the Endangered Species Act can undermine the protection of vanishing creatures.

More Than Just the Deer at Risk

More rides on the fate of the Key deer than just the survival of a single creature. The refuge is home to 16 listed species, including:

Lower Keys marsh rabbit
silver rice rat
American crocodile
"The Key deer is the flagship for a whole fleet of species in the Keys," says Mark Robertson, head of The Nature Conservancy's Key West office. "There are many endemic plant and animal species, and they're all going to sink or swim together."

The quality of life for people who live in deer habitat also hangs in the balance, because what is good for Key deer, such as clean water, can also benefit local folks.

Moreover, recent court cases involving the Key deer have led to decisions of national significance, both for listed species and for taxpayers interested in saving billions of federal dollars.

How the Key Deer Came to the Florida Keys

The Key deer is a subspecies of white-tailed deer that lives only on a few islands in the Florida Keys, from Little Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key. The biggest and most important of those islands is 16-square-mile Big Pine Key, home to the bulk of the deer population and the base for the federal deer refuge.

Scientists speculate that white-tailed deer arrived in the Keys during the most-recent ice age, when seas were lower and the Keys were not islands but a continuous ridge of land. When the glaciers receded about 10,000 years ago, the seas rose, and the whitetails found themselves isolated from the mainland.

As a rule, species of large mammal that become isolated on islands gradually become smaller through evolution, allowing more efficient use of the limited amounts of resources available on islands. Thus, Key deer, at maturity, stand about 30 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh a maximum of only 80 pounds for males and 63 pounds for females, roughly half the weight of the average northern continental whitetail.

The deer feed on at least 180 species of Keys vegetation. They can drink brackish water, but cannot survive without some source of fresh water. Big Pine offers some of the most reliable water sources. Many of the Keys that lie off of Big Pine lack permanent drinking-water supplies, particularly during droughts.

Threats to the Key Deer

Since the 1970s, the Key deer has been dwindling. With the exception of Big Pine and No Name Keys, says Mike McMinn, assistant manager of the refuge, the population is collapsing. Cudjoe and Sugarloaf, he says, no longer even have deer. Limited to a single, declining population in a constricted range that is beleaguered by development, the deer are vulnerable to catastrophic destruction. Says McMinn, "If one force four or five hurricane hits Big Pine Key, we'll be lucky if we have any deer left."

While the deer have been declining, development has continued apace, centering on the most crucial part of Key deer habitat: Big Pine Key. Fifty years ago, only seven people lived on Big Pine. Twenty years ago, the island housed 1,500. Today, the number stands at about 4,300.

This influx of people and the development they stimulate have yielded a variety of factors dangerous to the deer:

Roads and motor vehicles: Road traffic on average kills 45 deer annually, the subspecies' single largest cause of death in an average annual mortality of 63 animals. McMinn says that the deer found dead do not represent all of those killed, however, since some crawl off to die undiscovered. Paving and other road improvements increase the number of deer killed. McMinn cites an unpaved road claimed no deer between 1985 and 1992, but on which four deer were killed within the first three years after it was paved. 
Mosquito ditches: These narrow canals, about 2 feet wide and 2 or 3 feet deep, crisscross Big Pine in a chaotic network created to house gambusia, a fish imported from Africa to control mosquitos by eating them. "The ditches are a problem," says McMinn, "especially for young deer, but also for adults, which sometimes drown in them." 
Fragmented habitat: "A big problem faced by the national wildlife refuge is fragmentation of deer habitat," says Manillo. The deer use a large portion of Big Pine, but development has subdivided the habitat. According to Mark Rosch, executive director of the Monroe County Land Authority, Big Pine Key is parceled out in plots of 5 acres or less. "If you have 3,000 or 5,000 parcels of land, you have 3,000 or 5,000 different expectations about what's going to be done with that land," Rosch says. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has to buy each of those parcels singly in order to create larger stretches of habitat. The price tag is $65 million, but since 1994 Congress has provided no funds for acquisition. Even before 1994, Rosch says, FWS received only about $1 million annually for buying the land. 
Housing developments: When refuge biologist Tom Wilmers conducted a deer survey recently on Big Pine Key, he found more deer in the subdivisions than outside them. The animals enter yards to browse on ornamental plants and to take handouts from people. "Feeding deer is illegal," says McMinn. "When people feed the deer, the animals congregate in unnatural groups, which sets them up for disease epidemics." 
Dogs: Free-roaming dogs are another threat to the tiny deer, since dogs will readily adopt the predatory habits of their wolf ancestors, chasing hoofed animals in packs. McMinn suspects that dogs are behind the deer's disappearance from some of the outer islands.
The press for more houses, roads and other development on Big Pine Key persists. Developers often ignore the needs of the deer and, in the process, ignore the restrictions of the Endangered Species Act and other laws. The county commissioners have let the developers get away with this because the developers wield powerful political clout, says Florida Wildlife Federation president Manley Fuller. One result of the developers' power was the Lytton's Way conflict.

In a similar vein, two years ago Monroe County officials gave a Big Pine Key resident permission to build a 6-foot-high, 400-foot-long fence on his lot, even though the county earlier had banned fencing in the area because fences impede deer movement. The resident said he needed the fence to keep children out of his hot tub and deer out of his shrubs. The permit was challenged by the Department of Community Affairs, a state agency that oversees development, and the case ended up in the Florida Supreme Court.

The court reached a five-to-two decision against the fence. Writing for the majority, Justice Gerald Kogan declared, "Landowners do not have an untrammeled right to use their property regardless of the legitimate environmental interest of the state." He added, "The clear policy underlying Florida environmental regulation is that our society is to be the steward of the natural world, not its unreasoning overlord."

Rosch argues that failure in Key deer management should not be blamed exclusively on the county commissioners.

"A tendency has developed to see the commission as having primary responsibility for the deer, but it doesn't," he says. FWS, he contends, has perpetuated serious management problems by failing to designate critical habitat for the deer, as required by the Endangered Species Act. Until FWS does this, he suggests, the county commissioners lack a critical guideline for development. FWS, Rosch believes, has never designated critical habitat because the agency wants to avoid the intense controversy surrounding such a decision.

Barry Stieglitz, manager of the National Key Deer Refuge, readily admits that FWS has avoided critical habitat designation for political reasons, but he considers those reasons sound.

"Designation would frighten residents already nervous about land-use issues and harden resistance to deer protection," he says. "You could go ahead and apply the additional label, but it's not going to affect the importance of the habitat."

The clouded situation surrounding the Key deer glimmers with a faint silver lining. For one thing, Florida has designated the Keys as an Area of Critical State Concern, making all county-commission decisions subject to state scrutiny.

"Any new land-use regulations have to be approved by the Florida cabinet [a quasi-legislative body elected by popular vote] and the Florida Department of Community Affairs," says The Nature Conservancy's Mark Robertson. And the state has been demonstratively more protective of the Keys than have the commissioners.

Another promising development for Key deer habitat protection: The Monroe County Commission that came in with the 1991 election is an improvement over previous commissions, says Rosch. For example, the new commissioners do not claim title to Lytton's Way.

The future of the deer also brightened recently when the Florida Department of Community Affairs ordered Monroe County commissioners to revise a proposed comprehensive county plan. The order came after local conservationists won a hearing on the plan, arguing that its development bias would harm the community. The state hearing officer, Larry Sartin, ruled in 1995 that state and local governments must limit growth in Monroe County or face ecological collapse.

The reasons for Sartin's ruling went well beyond Key deer, which he said "cannot tolerate further development without facing extinction." He also feared that additional development would hamper hurricane-evacuation plans; destroy "the unique environmental characteristics and importance" of North Key Largo, Ohio Key and Coupon Bight; and threaten water quality in the area.

Floodplain Management and Key Deer Protection

Additional support for Key deer protection came out of a 1994 court case brought by National Wildlife Federation and Florida Wildlife Federation against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which refused to consult with FWS to determine whether FEMA's flood-insurance subsidies encouraged development that might harm the deer.

Attorneys for NWF and FWF, David White and Henry Morgenstern, contended that the consultation was required under the Endangered Species Act. FEMA officials argued that the agency was not subject to the law.

U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore agreed with White and Morgenstern. National Wildlife Federation attorney John Kostyack is now monitoring FEMA's compliance with the court order.

This ruling could affect FEMA activities across the United States.

Presently, FEMA at bargain prices underwrites insurance on buildings constructed in high-risk areas, such as floodplains and barrier islands, and spends an average of $1.5 billion yearly on disaster assistance and flood insurance claims. The court decision suggests that development under FEMA will be curtailed in some areas, saving tax dollars that would wash away in response to inevitable floods.

"This was a victory for both endangered species and the American taxpayer," White says. "The American people do not want to subsidize new development in flood zones and sensitive coastal areas which jeopardizes the existence of endangered species." Flood-prone areas provide habitat for 40 percent of U.S. endangered species and 60 percent of threatened species.

The Key to Key Deer Survival? Land

In the end, the crucial factor for Key deer is land. Without habitat, the animals and other jeopardized species will dwindle away.

"The ultimate solution is to acquire as much of the habitat as we can," says Florida Wildlife Federation's Manley Fuller. Big Pine's patchwork quilt of small lots makes land purchase a challenge, but one that shows some promise of being met. Under a state program called Conservation and Recreation Lands, Florida is acquiring undeveloped lands on Big Pine and No Name Keys. The Nature Conservancy has completed more than 200 transactions on Big Pine Key alone, acquiring a total of 550 acres.

A critical need now is to revive federal land acquistion. David Michaud, an NWF endangered-species specialist working on Key deer issues, sees land-acquisition funds as a top priority in this program.

"We need to get more acquisition money for the Monroe County Land Authority, restart federal acquisition and involve more private groups in buying land," he says.

The factors that weigh for and against the Key deer are echoed throughout the nation where other listed species struggle to survive.

"If people are willing to coexist with endangered species and the natural world," says Carolyn Waldron, NWF's acting vice president of Conservation Programs, "these creatures will survive and our quality of life will be the better for it."

Senior editor Roger DiSilvestro reports that Key deer conservation lost a valuable ally when Fred Manillo died suddenly just after he was interviewed for this article.

National Wildlife Federation and the Key Deer

The National Wildlife Federation made saving the Key deer the theme of its annual National Wildlife Week in 1952--when the subspecies numbered only 50 animals. Around that time, NWF and other groups provided funds for hiring a game warden to stop deer poaching. NWF also supported bills that led to creation of the National Key Deer Refuge.

Today, NWF has formulated a policy designed to protect the Key deer and meet the needs of the human community.

"Our goal is to protect the deer and other wildlife while ensuring a quality environment for human residents," says John Kostyack, who leads NWF's Key deer efforts.

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