Federal wildlife managers will begin putting radio collars on Key deer battling an outbreak of New World screwworm in an effort to stop the flesh-eating pest from spreading during the spring fawning season.
During October and November, more than 130 deer died, a high number for the planet’s last herd which now numbers about 875 deer. The deaths tapered off after the U.S. Department of Agriculture began releasing sterile screwworms — 58 million have been released so far — and mating ended. Last week marked the first death in nearly a month, bringing the total to 133.
But biologists fear new births could reignite the outbreak of the flies, which feed on exposed live tissue. By collaring and tracking the deer, they say they can watch for signs of infestation and get an early jump on treatment, if necessary.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
In addition to releasing sterile flies, biologists have also erected enclosures in the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge where they planned to hold healthy deer if the outbreak spiraled out of control.
“We want the public to know first and foremost if they see staff and partners trapping Key deer it is not because they are trying to move them into the fenced enclosure [‘the Ark’] that was designed earlier in this incident,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement Thursday. “The purpose of this study is to monitor female Key deer as we enter the fawning season to detect any early signs of screwworm.”
Beginning in January, 30 female deer will get collars and be monitored through the spring as babies are born. Because trapping the fragile deer poses risk, biologists want to monitoring the effort before deciding whether to expand it.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich