Key deer may lose endangered species protection. Less than 1,000 live in the Lower Keys

The diminutive Key deer, which has managed to hang on to existence in the Lower Keys in the face of hurricanes, increasing traffic and a killer screwworm infestation, may lose its federal endangered species protection.

The federal government is considering removing the deer from the Endangered Species List, according to a letter from the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex to staff at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key.

Less than 1,000 of the deer live in the Lower Keys, the only place they can be found in the world. Appearances of the docile dog-sized creatures delight tourists and many residents.

The delisting proposal triggered strong reactions from environmentalists, who said it was being raised despite “increasing and severe’’ threats to the Key deer.

“Stripping the Key deer of protections to meet an arbitrary quota is like kicking a critically ill patient out of the emergency room to free up bed space,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The proposal, according to the letter, comes after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a review of the “best available scientific and commercial information” and concluded that threats to the Key deer have been eliminated, meaning the species no longer meets the criteria of endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The July 30 letter came just before the federal government announced on Monday that it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, making it easier to remove species from the endangered list. The new rules also allow wildlife managers to conduct economic assessments when considering the status of a species, meaning that lost revenue from a protected habitat could potentially lead to lower protections.

Widely photographed by visitors to the Florida Keys, the deer got very close to extinction in the 1950s when habitat destruction and poaching reduced its population to around two dozen. Since then a federal recovery effort and the 1957 establishment of the refuge helped recover the population to between 950 and 1,000 animals. The bulk of the population is on Big Pine, but others spread out across the Lower Keys.

But life for Key deer hasn’t been a fairy tale. A flesh-eating diseased caused by the New World screwworm killed more than 130 deer in 2016. Hurricane Irma wiped out a large part of their habitat in 2017 as storm surge submerged much of the Lower Keys, including the refuge on Big Pine. Traffic accidents also kill animals every year, leading the refuge to add chain-link fencing along U.S. 1 on Big Pine Key to protect the herd.

Hurricanes and tropical storms that are predicted to intensify pose a significant threat to the deer. A single large event could reduce the herd to an irreversibly small level, and continued development and population growth is already threatening the deer’s habitat, said Ed Davidson, chairman of the FlaKeys Citizens Coalition.

“Any decision the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service makes on Key deer would have to fully account for these ongoing pressures and the best available science,” said Mike Saccone, vice president of communications at the National Wildlife Fund.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is holding a meeting in the Keys on Aug. 22 to provide the public with information on the status review. On a three-year work plan, the “recommendation or action type” for the Key deer is described as “delist due to recovery.” The final determination is scheduled for next year.

Miami Herald Reporter David Goodhue contributed to this story.