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 five-year mark of the outbreak things are looking up.