Environment

Key deer outfitted with radio collars to fight screwworm

A female Key deer runs away after being outfitted with a radio collar to help biologists track its movements.
A female Key deer runs away after being outfitted with a radio collar to help biologists track its movements. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Thirty female Key deer have been outfitted with radio collars in the ongoing battle against New World screwworm in the Florida Keys.

In the coming weeks, swarms of sterile screwworm flies will blanket parts of the Middle Keys, an army of millions manufactured in Panama to combat an outbreak of the flesh-eating pest attacking the islands’ beloved Key deer.

The fragile deer, part of the last herd on the planet, were trapped and collared over three days this month by a team from Texas A&M University and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists. The collars will help biologists better monitor the does during the spring fawning season, when they are more vulnerable to infection by the flesh-eating flies.

The fawning season usually starts in March or April and because screwworms lay eggs in open wounds, biologists worry the outbreak will surge again. Deer started turning up dead in August during the mating season, when males frequently suffer head wounds during rutting. By November, more than 130 had died.

This month, two more deer died on Big and Little Munson Islands, the FWS reported Thursday. Collared deer will be checked several times a week, the FWS said, and daily once fawning begins.

The outbreak is the first in the U.S. in more than three decades and is being closely watched by biologists and agricultural officials. An infected dog was confirmed in Homestead earlier this month, triggering the release of sterile screwworms to stop the spread of wild flies. But so far, only one wild fly has been trapped.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials at the National Key Deer Refuge hope to slow the spread of the screwworm throughout the Key deer community by feeding the animals bread medicated with an anti-parasitic drug.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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