Wildlife officials racing to protect endangered Key deer from a grisly outbreak of screwworm flies have added a new weapon to their arsenal: a medication pit stop.
The stations are being deployed in the National Key Deer Refuge’s backcountry to treat more reclusive deer and, like the deer, are a miniature version of a method used to successfully treat domestic livestock. The stations — feeding troughs baited with sweet corn, oats and other grains and rimmed with rollers coated with an anti-parasitic — should add another layer of protection to the endangered herd which now numbers about a thousand.
Since August, 130 deer have died after being infected with the screwworm larva, which burrow into wounds to feed on flesh.
While deer continue to die, officials believe the numbers might be leveling off. Last week, the number held steady at 127 for several says before creeping up after two infected male deer were discovered in a more remote part of the refuge.
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“What we expect epidemiologically is to have a curve that almost looks like a bell curve,” said Joanna Davis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “So it’s kind of following the path that’s expected.”
The USDA in mid-October also began releasing hoards of sterile male screwworms — about 6 million larvae weekly — to wipe out the wild flies. The flies are being released at 25 different sites on 10 islands where screwworms or infected deer have been confirmed, with entomologists continuously monitoring traps to calibrate releases. Female screwworm flies only mate once, so entomologists predict populations should begin to drop nine to 12 weeks after releases, Davis said.
The medication stations were added to reach wilder deer that won’t eat medicated bread being fed to tame deer that hang out in neighborhoods near the refuge. So far, nearly 1,700 doses have been distributed.
Combined with fly releases, Gentry said officials hope treatment methods have helped ease the worst of the outbreak. In the past few days, she said, a resident also reported seeing wounds on a treated deer start to improve.
“So that’s very promising, at least for that one individual,” she said. “And when you’re looking at endangered species, every individual counts.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich.