The last of nearly 30 female Key deer who have been monitored since the beginning of the year with radio collars and tags are about to go collarless.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers were monitoring them through fawning season to make sure none had New World screwworm, fly larvae that hatch and feed in open wounds of any warm-blooded animal and basically eat it alive.
For now, all is well in the Lower Keys, according to National Key Deer Refuge Manager Dan Clark. He said many fawns were born this spring and summer, helping level out the population of Key deer lost to both screwworm and car accidents.
It has been nearly eight months since the last report of New World screwworm in the Florida Keys, and about a year since the deadly parasite started wreaking havoc on the Key deer, which grow to be about 3 feet tall and are found only in the Lower Keys.
From early September through January, 133 Key deer were either euthanized or found dead from screwworm on Big Pine Key and No Name Key. Wildlife officials theorized the infestation had been going on since at least last July, but the cause of the deaths was not specified until late September.
As the epidemic wound down, Fish and Wildlife Service officers put the tags and collars on female deer to monitor them in the wild with help from Texas A&M researchers. Next week, all remaining radio collars will be removed.
“This was very specifically done as a result of the screwworm incident, so we’re finishing it up,” Clark said, adding the population of the federally protected deer is around 875. “We’re holding well.”
State and federal agencies cooperated for months in Marathon and the Lower Keys from a command post where workers coordinated medicine for the deer and methods for eradication of the screwworm.
To stop the life cycle, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released more than 150 million sterile screwworm flies in the Lower Keys, Marathon and Homestead from October to late April to mate with wild flies to produce eggs that never hatched.
A stray dog found in Homestead with an infestation sparked heavy concern in early January about screwworms spreading to the mainland, which could threaten Florida’s livestock industry and other endangered species. There have been no other reports of screwworm on the mainland or in the Keys since.
Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219