Key Deer

The endangered Key deer herd was already coming out of a tough year — the herd lost more than 100 animals to New World screwworm.

So when the eye of Hurricane Irma crossed the Lower Keys as a Category 4 storm, wildlife managers were worried. The Lower Keys is also the only place on the planet where Key deer live.

But recently completed population surveys came up with good news, said Dan Clark, manager of the four national wildlife refuges in the Keys, including Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge.

Federal wildlife managers in the Florida Keys have a message for residents: Please stop feeding the endangered deer.

Since Irma washed over Cudjoe Key Sept. 10, pushing a storm surge that submerged much of the Lower Keys including the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine, residents who have long tended to the deer like beloved pets began putting out water and food, fearful that saltwater contaminated foraging grounds.

Thirty female Key deer are now wearing radio collars so biologists can track them during fawning season.

The deer will be watched closely because does and newborn fawns are especially vulnerable to screwworm. The parasite has killed 135 of the endangered animals so far. The herd was estimated at 800 to 1,000 animals before the outbreak.

Screwworm flies lay their eggs in open wounds on warm-blooded animals. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the living flesh of the host.

Photo: USFWS/Florida Keys Wildlife Refuges Photography Club

For the first time in 30 years, the invasive New World Screwworm has been reported in the Florida Keys. The bug and its flesh-eating larvae have been reported on the mainland.

Since September, 15 cases of the screwworm have been documented in endangered Key Deer, pigs, raccoons, cats, and dogs. In early January, the first case of the fly—and the flesh-eating larvae it produces when its eggs are hatched inside an animal—was reported in Homestead. That brings the screwworm onto the Florida mainland and just miles from Miami.

A stray dog in Homestead was infested with screwworm, the invasive pest that is hated and feared by the agriculture industry, state officials said Monday.

It's the first case on the mainland. Screwworm was discovered last fall in the Lower Keys, the first U.S. infestation in more than 30 years.

Since then, more than 80 million sterile screwworm flies have been released in the Lower and Middle Keys. That's the proven method for eradicating screwworm.

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