BIG PINE KEY — In January, the state will relocate some Key deer to more southern Keys in order to protect them from threats such as humans, hurricanes and a disease related to mad cow disease.
Chronic wasting disease, a brain disease of antlered animals found in the western United States, has recently become a concern to Florida because of its movement eastward.
Key deer have overcome near-extinction to reach their current status, which is based mostly on Big Pine and No Name Keys. With a low population of about 27 in 1957, roughly 800 of these creatures now live in the Keys. The smallest subspecies of Virginia white-tailed deer, they remain endangered and protected, largely as a result of deaths from road kills and human interaction.
Chronic wasting disease could pose an even greater threat.
An influx of the disease into the Keys would be devastating, said Diane Riggs, wildlife biologist at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key.
To protect Key deer from this fate, the refuge is planning soon to begin a Key deer relocation project.
“It’s purely a precautionary thing,” Riggs said.
Key deer are highly susceptible to any disease because of their close concentration within a 6-mile area.
“The deer population has been steadily increasing over the years,” said Mick Putney, president of the Key Deer Protection Alliance.
Unfortunately, the best way to determine their safety is not by numbers but by their expansion, he said, and they are not expanding at all currently.
Relocating families of Key deer will help protect them from disease and show their strength as a species to adapt. The distribution of the population will also guard against extinction in case of a disaster such as a hurricane.
Although they now occupy a range from Johnson keys to Sugarloaf keys, early records indicate that the deer once lived throughout the Lower Keys and even in Key West. Some of these lost territorial areas will be home to the deer once again if the relocations are successful.
“They’re a national treasure that just deserve a whole lot more protection,” said Putney, a No Name Key resident.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has also taken steps to protect Florida’s deer population. An emergency rule the commission adopted prohibits importing deer that are not certified as disease-free. The commission will also test 500 deer this hunting season, including Key deer, for chronic wasting disease to ensure the state’s herds are safe.
Key deer samples are being taken from deer killed by vehicles. The hardest part of this process is keeping the brain intact enough to be successfully tested, Riggs said.
The disease is typically fatal, with no known treatment. Unlike its relative, mad cow disease, there is no evidence that the disease can be transmitted to humans.
Because the direct contact of body fluids is thought to transmit it, white-tailed deer are particularly vulnerable. Their highly social behavior causes them to congregate in larger herds, causing a larger percentage of the herd to become infected.
Key deer awareness is also important in protecting the species, Putney said.
For the 12 years that the National Key Deer Alliance has been active, the group has focused on reaching out to schools in the Keys with videos, speakers and shows. The alliance has also tried to influence decisions on policies that may affect Key deer.
Seventy percent of Key deer deaths result from roadside killings, not illegal feeding.
Two types of Key deer have resulted from roadside feeding, Putney said. Suburban deer tend to be tame, while those in more secluded areas remain wild.
“It’s good they’re protected,” said Bryan Kratish, University of Florida student and Islamorada resident. “It’d be really stupid to protect them against cars and traffic and not this [disease]. I view Key deer as a symbol of the Keys, and so does most of the adult population of the Keys.”
They also play a valuable role in the ecology of the Keys, Putney added.
“They were here first,” Putney said. “And they’re awful cute.”