Florida Keys

Feds quietly reconsider protected status for endangered Florida Key deer

The last couple of years have not been kind to the endangered Key deer.

A grisly flesh-eating screwworm infected the planet’s only herd in the Lower Keys in 2016, killing nearly an eighth of the beloved dog-sized deer. Then came Hurricane Irma in September, which landed a direct blow to their habitat. And don’t forget the poachers, an inept duo who hog-tied and stuffed three deer in their car before police stopped them.

Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under increasing pressure to thin the ranks of the endangered species list, is quietly conducting a review of the deer’s protected status.

The agency, which has not publicly announced the review, confirmed it is ongoing, but refused to provide details about what prompted it.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is finishing up an evaluation related to the status of the Key deer required under the Endangered Species Act,” spokesman Ken Warren said in an email. “As soon as a recommendation is finalized and published, we will make an announcement.”

key deer close up
In the last couple of years, Key deer have been hit with an outbreak of screwworm, the first in the continental U.S. in three decades, and Hurricane Irma. Now federal wildlife managers are quietly reviewing their protected status. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

The move is setting off alarms among scientists, who worry that a rise in the population, despite increasing threats from sea rise and development, might shove the deer off the list or reduce their status.

“Down-listing the Key deer to threatened is beyond absurd,” said Tom Wilmers, a deer biologist who retired from the National Key Deer Refuge after nearly 30 years. “Their habitat is horrible. They’ve been hit by a hurricane. There was the horrible situation with those screwworms. And now you’re going to talk about down-listing them? What is better than it was 25 years ago? Nothing.”

screwworm key deer
In 2016, an outbreak of flesh-eating screwworm killed 135 deer, or about an eighth of the herd that lives only in the Lower Keys. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Trump administration has made clear its intentions to ease environmental regulations, including those covered by the Endangered Species Act, by appointing leadership that has fought protections. In October, the Department of Interior also issued a memo revising how it wants the status of species updated to include state representatives on review boards, with one appointee representing the state’s wildlife commission and the other named by governors.

Previously, reviews that included “science-based recovery plans” were conducted by the agency.

The change immediately drew criticism from environmental groups, who warned it violated federal rules and worried about including politically motivated appointees without expertise.

“Most states see the Endangered Species Act as an intrusion on their authority, so as institutions they tend to oppose protections,” said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. The Center threatened to sue the Interior Department in December after it made the change without notifying or including the public, citing the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires public participation in proposed rule changes.

After the Center’s warning, Greenwald said Interior officials responded in January, saying appointees would need to have a background in biology or knowledge of the species. But he said the clarification was vague.

“Does it mean they have to know about the species or have taken biology in college?” he said. “It’s hard to know what that means.”

Over the years, endangered Key deer have endured numerous hurricanes, including Hurricane Wilma in 2005, pictured here. After Irma, wildlife managers said some deer were killed, but the overall population remained healthy, with population numbers in core habitats reduced from about 1,100 to about 950. Miami Herald file photo

The change took effect Nov. 1. It’s not clear if Florida representatives will be on the team that decides the Key deer’s fate.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson said the agency was provided background material for the status review, but she could not say whether the state has been asked to participate in a review board and directed additional questions to the federal agency.

It’s also unclear what’s prompting the review.

The Service last evaluated the deer’s status in 2010, and concluded that the deer remained endangered.

At that time, biologists estimated the population was stable, but worried they were becoming too dependent on their human neighbors who sometimes provide food and water. And while numbers increased in core, urban areas, deer had continued to vanish in remote areas. Researchers also worried that these denser populations were outgrowing their ranges.

After the hurricane, wildlife managers warned residents to stop feeding the deer. Nancy Klingener WLRN

Sea rise also poses a considerable risk, with between 59,000 and 154,000 acres of deer habitat submerged, the report concluded. Rising sea levels also risk contaminating watering holes with seawater.

The report said a recovery plan was being revised, but lacked critical information about the smaller, remote populations that are key to determing whether the population is stable. Researchers also said they still lacked crucial information about risks from disease: In addition to screwworm, Key deer for years have been infected with Johne’s disease, which affects the small intestine. It’s not clear how changes in the population would affect the disease’s spread.

After Irma, wildlife managers reduced their estimates of the core population from about 1,100 to about 950 but said the deer remained healthy. But a Texas A&M University survey recommended taking another look in January because numbers could be skewed. Roadside counts could be off because deer were scavenging for food or water and piles of debris could also have obscured deer.

Status reviews have occurred periodically over the years, but they sometimes get delayed in the chronically bureaucratic agency. The backlog for reviews is also long, Greenwald said. Reviews are also usually announced in the Federal Register, where agency actions are publicly advertised. No notice appears for the Key deer status review.

Given how long ago the administration changed the procedure, and the widespread attention that Key deer draw, Greenwald said he’d be surprised if the state was not participating.

“Introducing state officials is a way to limit protections and it’s designed to give political appointees more power to down-list and delist species and not give the appearance of getting crosswise of the science,” he said.

Warren said the agency expects to announce its findings sometime later this year. If the agency does change course, Wilmers warned it would be a mistake.

“We’re all sitting here with this comfortable notion that we’re through the wormhole, but it keeps coming at us,” he said. “The habitat is always going to make that animal prone to disappearance. And it’s always going to get smaller.”

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