A two-month-long outbreak of screwworm among Key deer has led wildlife biologists to come up with a more definitive count for the elusive herd.
This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency now believes the planet’s last herd totals 875 based on work by field biologists and volunteers helping treat deer, along with a team from Texas A&M University that specializes in population counts. The herd had been estimated at 800 to 1,000, based largely counts done on Big Pine and No Name keys, where deer are concentrated. The new count includes 11 of the 22 islands where deer are thought to live and will help inform better strategies to manage the outbreak, the agency said.
Since the outbreak began on Big Pine in September at the height of the mating season, 132 deer — mostly males injured during rutting — have died. No more deaths have been recorded in a week, suggesting efforts to stop the outbreak may be working.
In addition to treating deer with anti-parasitics to prevent infections, entomologists have also released millions of sterile male screwworms to mate with wild female flies and reduce the population. The National Key Deer Refuge also erected several enclosures where they can trap and tend to healthy animals if the number of deer drops too low.
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875The new population count for endangered Key deer
“A population estimate is just that — it is an estimate and may increase or decrease with regular fluidity,” said FWS biologist Drew Becker.
The agency said it’s also adding another unusual tool to help preserve the endangered herd: collecting “reproductive organs” from uninfected deer killed by vehicles, which continue to kill more deer than the outbreak. If the number of deer dwindles, genetic material can be used to help revive the herd and prevent the kind of inbreeding that led to health problems and disease among Florida panthers.
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