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Judge Orders U.S. Wildlife Managers To Release Report Contemplating Loosening Protections For Key Deer

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to release a report that was part of an effort to loosen protections for endangered Key deer.
Emily Michot
Miami Herald
A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to release a report that was part of an effort to loosen protections for endangered Key deer.

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to release records after the agency began quietly reconsidering loosening protections for endangered Key deer.

The Sierra Club sued the Service in 2019 after learning that wildlife managers had started assessing the status of the planet’s only population of deer in the Lower Keys. The Service had not publicly revealed that it was re-evaluating protections and would not say what prompted the review, the first since 2010.

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At the time, the agency was under orders from the Trump administration to shrink the endangered species list.

Conservationists and biologists immediately condemned the move, saying the deer continue to face dire threats, despite an increase in the small population. In 2017, the herd was attacked by a grisly screwworm infestation that killed more than 100 deer, or about an eighth of the population.

The deer also continue to lose habitat to development, while sea rise driven by climate change threatens to shrink habitat and contaminate watering holes.

When the Sierra Club asked for more information about the plans and a copy of the assessment, the Service said it was incomplete and refused to provide drafts.

After the nonprofit sued, the Service argued in court that releasing incomplete information would confuse the public and damage efforts to evaluate the listing.

Over the years, the beloved deer have drawn a loyal and protective following among Keys residents, who often feed them and provide water. Many also closely watch management decisions. When the screwworm infestation began killing deer, they passionately rallied behind efforts to save them.

In his Friday ruling, U.S. Judge James Boasberg found the Service had in fact completed the assessment, citing the agency’s own documents, confirming drafts were circulated in late 2017 before the report was finalized in early 2018 — the year before the Sierra Club sued. Boasberg also dismissed the Service’s justification for not releasing the report.

“The Court remains unpersuaded,” he said, “that a non-specific fear of confusion suffices to meet the agency’s burden.”

The Sierra Club said the agency also wasted limited resources on the effort, which would reclassify the deer from endangered to threatened.

“It's ridiculous that it took three years and a lawsuit for [the Service] to allow Key deer advocates, volunteers that give countless hours to protect the species, to finally see this report," said Diana Umpierre, the Sierra Club's Everglades representative, in a statement. "Instead of hiding public records they should have been spending their energy to save a species.”

Boasberg ordered the Service to release the assessment Wednesday. A Service spokeswoman did not immediately reply to an email asking if the agency planned to comply or appeal the decision.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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