THE KEY DEER (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) is the smallest whitetail subspecies topping out at 60 pounds and living exclusively in their namesake islands on the Florida coast.
Seeing a herd of Key deer on my honeymoon in 1999 was a special moment that fulfilled a childhood dream born out of a fascination with all things wildlife—especially the rare and unusual. Seeing them last July during a Florida fishing expedition was just as exciting.
I would love to share photos of the massive (by Key deer standards) buck from that expedition, but they were destroyed along with many others when Hurricane Ike ravaged my hometown in 2008. Just as those photos washed away with storm surge, a series of hurricanes have played havoc on Key deer.
Most recently, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials, Hurricane Irma in 2017 killed 21 deer with an additional dozen killed in the chaotic aftermath. With the latest estimates showing only 949, that hurts.
For perspective, I have hunted on a single 5,000 acre low-fence Texas ranch with more whitetails than that.
Additionally, an old foe last seen in the U.S. more than 30 years ago, hit the Keys hard in 2016. But Texans came to the rescue.
“Screwworms infested the population, which is spread across more than 20 islands. It led to 135 Key deer deaths, including 83 that were euthanized to reduce the risk of further infection,” said Dr. Roel Lopez. “This was a significant blow to a species, which is uniquely located in that area.”
Doctor Lopez is director and co-principal investigator for the Key deer study, San Antonio, a project of Texas A&M University (TAMU). TAMU, along with various agencies including USFWS, alleviated the crisis by preventive treatment and fly eradication efforts. This included feed stations lined with anti-parasitic medications and releasing 60 million sterile male screwworms to mate with wild female flies and curb reproduction.
That is a big effort for a little deer, but there is much love for them among those who understand their delicate existence. A single disease outbreak or storm could literally wipe out the population.
Then again, the species has proven resilient. The screwworms mainly took out mature males and researchers believe there are enough young bucks to replace them. At the three-year mark of the outbreak things are looking up.
In the 1950s their population was down to 50 when the Boone & Crockett Club (B&C) donated $5,000 to hire a game warden named Jack C. Watson to protect them from poachers. Eventually, this action and his efforts were heralded as saving the species altogether.
This action of the B&C is virtually unknown outside of the club itself and a few people in the Keys. I found it out while doing some serious research on the species a few years ago. This is literally a case where hunters stepped in and saved a species outright.
The photos you see in this article are from my July 2021 expedition to the Keys. They show both the beauty of the deer and the fragility of their existence.
The Key deer will most likely survive, but it’s up to those who love and respect these diminutive creatures to keep a watchful eye on them and ensure there is always a place for them among the ever-increasing human population of the region. I can think of no other endangered animal that spends such a huge amount of its time around civilization.
This species is symbolic of the future for many species. They only can continue to exist in the shadow of man, and it is up to man to make that possible.
I wrote this article to celebrate how a much-heralded Texas institution saved these animals and to tell the story of B&C’s role in their survival. I am also doing it to reach out to all you hunter-conservationists reading this article.
If you can think of creative ways to help these deer or raise funds for existing projects, email me at [email protected]. Having hunters involved in the Key deer’s future is a personal goal, and it’s something I believe would help the species dramatically.
—story by CHESTER MOORE