The federal government is considering removing the iconic Key deer from the Endangered Species List.
The Fish & Wildlife Service is holding a meeting in the Keys next week.
"We are not proposing a change at this point, but what we want to do is make sure that the folks who care about this species have the right information so that when and if we do propose a change, they have the exact same scientific information that we are using to inform our decisions," said Ken Warren, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Hunting reduced the herd to about 50 individuals in the 1930s and '40s. The refuge was established in 1957. In recent years, getting hit by cars was the leading cause of death for the deer. The refuge added chainlink fencing along U.S.1 on Big Pine Key to protect the deer.
Environmentalists from local and national groups reacted with dismay to the news.
"It seems outrageous," said Jaclyn Lopez, senior attorney and Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity. Key deer are faced with losing habitat to rising seas and threatened by increasingly intense hurricanes, she said.
A population survey in 2016 found the herd had grown to about 1,000, Warren said. That was before a screwworm outbreak killed 135 deer and Hurricane Irma's eye crossed the deer habitat as a Category 4-strength storm.
"We believe those two incidents put a dent in the population," but don't know exactly how large, Warren said. "That's one of the primary reasons we're going to do another official survey of the deer, to get a better handle on what the herd's population is right now."
Local environmentalists are skeptical of the population numbers.
"The population and health of the Key deer herd are worse than it has been for decades," Vivian Beck, president of the Key Deer Protection Alliance, said in an emailed statement. "Science estimates there are less than 600 Key deer on the planet. We will do whatever we can to keep this very bad decision from prevailing."
The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22, at the Marathon Government Center, 2798 Overseas Hwy.
Lopez said the threats facing Key deer are threats that face all Keys residents — including people.
"The Key deer are the canary in the coal mine for the Keys" as the pine rocklands where they live shrink, along with the freshwater lens that supports those areas. "What's going to be good for the Key deer and the habitat in the Keys is going to be good for the humans as well."