Manatees and Key deer are being pushed to extinction by climate-fueled superstorms

The beloved Florida manatee and the tiny Key deer, already at risk of extinction, could be pushed more quickly to the brink as climate change supercharges storms and intensifies the destructive power of hurricanes.

Manatees and Key deer are among 10 species that are particularly at risk of disappearing as intensifying hurricanes bring more rainfall, storm surge and winds that destroy coastal habitats, the Center for Biological Diversity said Wednesday in a report titled “Blown Away.”

“For many of these species there are just a few small and isolated populations left, making them even more vulnerable to climate change,” said Shaye Wolf, the Center’s climate science director and author of the report.. “A single superstorm can lead to a significant decline.”

The nonprofit, an environmental advocacy group, has frequently sued the federal government over new regulations that weaken the Endangered Species Act. In the latest issue, the departments of Interior and Commerce said in August they would change the way the Act is applied, making it easier to remove species from the endangered list. The new rules, which allow wildlife managers to conduct economic assessments when considering the status of a species, significantly weaken key conservation efforts and leave threatened populations more vulnerable to the threats posed by a changing climate.

Climate change is making hurricanes deadlier for people and wildlife that live along coastal areas because it’s boosting rainfall during storms and increasing the height of storm surges, creating huge walls of water that crash into coastlines.. That’s happening as the sea level rises: NOAA Tidal gauges in Key West and Virginia Key show that South Florida has seen about seven inches of sea level rise since the 1970s. The rising speed has accelerated over the past decade and is now increasing by one inch every three years. When a storm blows through, that extra water is propelled inland, ravaging coastal habitats and its creatures.

Manatees inhabit Florida’s coastal waters and swim into warmer springs and rivers when temperatures drop. They are already threatened by habitat loss, rising boat traffic and temperature extremes caused by climate change: warming waters encourage algae blooms which can be toxic, and cold snaps can kill manatees. Over 8,000 manatees are estimated to live in Florida, according to the report.

When storms hit, these gentle mammals can be forced far out to sea or they get stranded on land after being pushed by storm surge. In 2016 Hurricane Hermine left seven manatees stranded in a golf course pond in Crystal River, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. A mother and her calf were discovered a mile inland in a ditch on the side of a road after the Category 1 storm made landfall in the Florida Panhandle.

FWC biologists and volunteers rescue manatees stranded in a golf course pond after Hurricane Hermine in September 2016. FWC photo by Karen Parker

The endangered Key deer, which has survived worsening traffic and a killer screwworm infestation, stands to lose habitat at a faster pace as hurricanes intensify, the study said. The adorable dog-sized deer live in the Lower Keys, the only place in the world where they can be found. After they came close to extinction in the 1950s, when poaching and habitat destruction reduced their population to around two dozen, a federal recovery program and the 1957 establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key helped improve their numbers. Still, fewer than 1,000 remain. A big hurricane could significantly reduce the herd as most of their habitat is less than 3 feet above sea level, Wolf said.

In 2017 Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm, pummeling the islands with a storm surge of up to nine feet in some areas. The Key deer population dropped by 23 percent. “Deer were found crushed by debris and impaled by wind-thrown objects.” according to the study. Adding to the damage, Irma’s storm surge flooded several freshwater watering holes used by the deer with sea water.

A key deer doe rests with her fawn on Big Pine Key in this undated photo. The endangered species is only found in the Florida Keys. FWS

Of the 10 species surveyed, eight are in Florida. They include the elkhorn coral, a threatened species that has been decimated by disease, frequent bleaching events, pollution and habitat degradation. In the early 1980s, a severe disease event caused major mortality throughout its range and now the population is less than 3 percent of its former size, according to NOAA. Climate change (including global warming and ocean acidification) are major threats to the species.

In the Florida Reef Tract, hurricanes are a major driver of coral death, Wolf said. Half of the decline in elkhorn coral cover in the upper Florida Keys between 2004 and 2010 happened during the 2005 hurricane season that hit South Florida with four major storms.

The Green sea turtle is also on the list, as storm surge can flood and wash out turtle nests, drowning eggs and hatchlings.

Leading the list is the Puerto Rican parrot, which lost nearly half of its population after Hurricanes Maria and Irma. Fewer than 100 parrots currently live in the wild.

Wolf and scientists at the Center for Biological Diversity analyzed data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and scientific reports to determine which species are especially at risk from intensifying hurricanes. They looked at hurricanes over the past two decades and focused on endangered and threatened species because in general the quality of population monitoring data is better, Wolf said.

The nonprofit’s study proposed reducing the use of fossil fuels as a way to lower greenhouse gas emissions, which drive climate change. It also recommended restoring coastal species such as corals, as they act as a buffer against storm surge. And it called on environmentalists and policy makers to defend the Endangered Species Act.