A month after Florida was declared New World screwworm fly-free, officials in the Lower Keys are still keeping an eye out for the deadly fly larvae — especially since the population of Key deer is back on the rise.
It’s fawning season for the endangered deer, which would be prime time for screwworm flies to reproduce. The larvae feed on open wounds and can kill any warm-blooded animal by eating it alive. That happened to 135 Key deer from August 2016 to January and some died from their wounds while others had to be put down.
As fawning season approached earlier this year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers put radio collars and tags around the necks of 30 female deer to monitor them. Key deer, which stand around 3 feet high, are found only in the Keys.
“A lot of fawns have dropped and they’re looking healthy. We’re tracking the females as they give birth,” said Kate Watts, lead biologist at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. “Everything is going really well and we have seen no signs of screwworm.”
The fawning season will last through the summer with a few fawns born in late fall, she said. Watts could not specify how many fawns have been born, but said there is no shortage.
“With all white tail deer, if a female is in the breeding cycle of her life, she will likely be pregnant every year. We have enough bucks within the population that it is not likely there is any shortage of reproduction,” Watts said.
More than 160 million sterile screwworm flies were released in the Lower Keys and Marathon after the death toll started to rise late last year. The sterile flies mated with wild flies to produce eggs that never hatched. Fly releases ended in April.
Car accidents also bring the population down every year and Watts said there have been 28 deaths since Jan. 1.
“There are around 100 or 125 roadkills annually, so we’re looking about average right now,” Watts said.
Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219