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Wildlife refuges plan new Lower Keys visitor center

This is a rendering of what the new visitor center on Big Pine Key would look like.
This is a rendering of what the new visitor center on Big Pine Key would look like.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants new and larger digs for its Big Pine Key visitor center.

The Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex visitor center now is in the Winn-Dixie plaza on Key Deer Boulevard and contains office space, a staff bathroom and display area that includes a book store run by the Friends and Volunteers of Refuges. It's about 1,500 square feet, says Dan Clark, manager of the refuges complex.

A new 1,840-square-foot center would go on U.S. 1 at 30587 Overseas Highway and include a display area and the book store, two offices and classroom space for schools. There also would be a native plant nursery and pollinator garden, and a trail system on a neighboring two acres.

The refuges complex oversees the National Key Deer Refuge, Key West National Wildlife Refuge, Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.

Fish and Wildlife says a new center is needed on Big Pine because "the existing visitor center is inhibiting the good exchange of information with the public and inhibiting reaching additional interested entities due to its poor location," the refuges said in a prepared statement. "The storefront is not easily sighted (poor visibility) within the shopping center and the parking area is very congested, making it difficult to park and gain access to the facility."

About 25,000 people visit the center each year, officials say.

A new raised modular building would have a metal hip roof, light-colored finished exterior and wooden deck. The concrete piers holding it would be about five feet above grade.

It would cost about $500,000. The rent at the shopping center is $86,600 per year, including utilities. The utilities at the proposed new building would be less than $4,000 annually, the refuges complex says.

Officials say the financial return on the building when factoring in no rent would be realized in six years.

Fish and Wildlife has released a draft environmental impact statement for the proposed new building and the public comment period on it is open until June 17. It can be found at www.fws.gov/refuge/National_Key_Deer_Refuge.

Comments should be submitted to the refuges manager, Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex, 28950 Watson Blvd., Big Pine Key, FL 33043; or by e-mail to keydeer@fws.gov.

If Fish and Wildlife deems there to be no major opposition, a new visitor center could open by Sept. 30.

Deer numbers stable

The current population of Key deer on Big Pine and the Lower Keys likely is about 900 to 1,000 animals, refuge biologist Adam Emerick told Monroe County commissioners at their Wednesday meeting in Key West.

The population of the diminutive deer, estimated at just 25 to 50 animals in 1950, "has made a remarkable recovery, truly one of success stories of conservation," Emerick said.

A 2004 report estimated the number at about 500 deer.

"Deer are very hard to count," Emerick said. "Even with [wildlife] cameras, it's difficult to identify individual deer."

The Key deer population probably has largely stabilized due to limitations on Lower Keys habitat and available food sources, he said.

The number of deer is "not going to explode as they have in the last 20 years because of resource limitations," Emerick said.

Deaths on roads remain the leading cause of deer fatalities, causing 73 percent of deaths. "Road mortality is, and has always been, the most significant source of Key deer deaths," the biologist said.

Deer used to seeking food from handouts also have been tangled in fences, suffered cuts from sharp metal and gotten their heads stuck in bags.

"You can't make up the stuff [refuge staffers] have to respond to," Emerick said.

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