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Federal wildlife managers are updating a plan to save the Key deer. Conservationists say it's too vague

key_deer_close_up.jpeg
Emily Michot
/
Miami Herald
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is updating a plan to help save the endangered Key deer.

An updated federal plan to help save the endangered Key deer, and reverse course on a Trump administration effort to strip the species of protections, is drawing scrutiny from conservationists.

The changes would update a 23-year-old recovery plan and comes amid continued sparring between the groups and wildlife managers over how best to save the planet’s only herd of tiny deer.

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In recent years, a monster hurricane and a fatal disease outbreak have walloped the herd. Sea rise driven by climate change is also threatening to spoil, and potentially eventually wipe out, their low-lying habitat.

“We need objective, measurable criteria for the key deer to be recovered,” said Jason Totoiu, a senior attorney for the Center For Biological Diversity. “These draft criteria fall short."

The deer are now being managed under a 1999 plan created by the Service which also covers dozens of other species, including American crocodiles, grasshopper sparrows and Key Largo woodrats, living in habitats that range from the Kissimmee River to the Everglades. Wildlife managers intended the plan be used as a 'living document', revised as needed and aimed at saving more than a dozen species over 20 years.

The Key deer revisions would establish new thresholds for declaring victory in saving the species and removing it from the endangered species list.

“We are concerned, however, with just how that language is written and how it could be construed, or misconstrued, to allow for a premature de-listing of the species,” Totoiu said. The Trump administration sharply weakened protections under the law and removed more than a dozen protected species.

Key deer inhabit just a few islands in the desirable Lower Keys and have already been targeted for removal.

In 2018, the Service quietly launched a status review, called a species assessment. Scientists feared population estimates that showed an increase for the herd across the Lower Keys were inaccurate. Removing the deer as threats like hurricanes and development remain or worsen also didn't add up. The Sierra Club successfully sued to obtain the internal documents, which the group says showed flawed data was used in determining the risks to the deer’s survival.

The Service investigated Sierra’s allegations and found that while the errors were not intentional, they were significant enough to disqualify the findings of the assessment.

For the recovery plan to succeed, Totoiu said it needs to provide measurable criteria that would protect it from politics, particularly when it comes to sea rise. In its letter to the Service, the Sierra Club said the Service failed to 'square' the reality of flooding across the Keys with projections for the future.

“These species don't really have a voice. They're not lobbying in the halls of Congress,” he said. “So we just need these criteria to be more rigorous.”

In 2017, manatees were downlisted and reclassified as threatened, despite an increasing number of motorboats across the state. Boat collisions had been consistently the leading killer of the massive sea cows in Florida, up until a widespread seagrass die-off in the Indian River Lagoon nudged starvation to the top of the over the last two years
The powerful boating industry had for years pushed to reduce protections that would limit no-motor zones. Deaths in the last two years have reached new record highs.

Gaps in data, largely due to inadequate funding for research, also remains a problem, he said. The herd is divided between the back-country deer - which inhabit the far reaches of the National Key Deer Refuge and smaller islands - and the deer that congregate along the Overseas Highway around Big Pine, No Name, Sugarloaf and Cudjoe keys. Too little is known about the back-country population. And without that information, it’s hard to characterize the stability of the herd.

“If you're going to recover this species, you really need to take this holistic approach of making sure that every one of these subpopulations is accounted for, so you know the baseline numbers,” he said. “That’s important. If you lose one population for some catastrophic reason, you have others there so the species won’t become extinct.”

The agency, he said, has also been inconsistent with measuring threats from sea level rise. Watering holes dot the limestone floor of the pine rockland inhabited by the deer. Rainwater and an underground freshwater lens keep that water fresh. But as sea levels rise and hurricane storm surges become more intense, those holes are expected to fill with freshwater. Two years after Hurricane Irma, water in Big Pine’s Blue Hole remained salty.

With an adequate assessment of those risks, he said the Service can better plan.

“I know a lot of people are often confused and [wonder] what does the list do and are they just going to stay on there indefinitely,” Totoiu said. “So we are going back to the purpose in the first place, which is to conserve and recover the species. That certainly is the goal here. But it has to be a very methodical, science-based approach.”

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.