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Despite Screwworm Infestation, Key Deer Population Stabilizing

Diane Borden-Billiot
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
An endangered — but apparently healthy — Key deer on Big Pine Key.";s:

A Key deer was euthanized this week after it was found to be infested with screwworm. That's the bad news.

The good news is that it had been almost a month since the previous death, Nov. 14. That means the loss of the endangered species has slowed way down since the outbreak was confirmed in late September.

A total of 133 Key deer have died from the screwworms. Screwworm flies lay their eggs in the open wounds of warm blooded animals. When the eggs hatch, the larvae consume the living flesh of the host.

"We are hopeful that we have rounded the corner on this incident and that things will begin to stablize," said Nancy Brown, a public information officer for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which runs the National Key Deer Refuge in the Lower Keys.

Key deer are the smallest subspecies of the Virginia whitetail deer and live only in the Lower Keys. Their population was estimated at 800 to 1,000 animals before the outbreak.

Refuge staff and volunteers have been treating the deer with anti-parasitic medicine. They've also set up feeding stations with medicated rollers on the edges, so deer get medicine on their necks when they bend down to eat.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is fighting the outbreak with the tested method for eradicating screwworm — releasing sterile screwworm flies. So far, more than 51 million sterile flies have been released in the Keys.

The state agriculture department has set up a checkpoint in Key Largo to inspect pets that are leaving the Keys. Almost 7,000 animals have been checked; none have shown signs of screwworm.

Brown said the Fish & Wildlife Service will continue treating the deer until the screwworm flies are eradicated.

"We want to make absolutely certain that we take every precaution until there is no screwworm left in the Keys," she said.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.