There are many factors that contribute to a depleting species population, such as increased human activity, changes in the environment, or other declining species populations. The Key deer population, for example, has been depleting across their native home of the Florida Keys for years — it's only a matter of time before they are completely extinct. But as of right now, how many Key deer are left? And why are they endangered in the first place?
Despite the Key deer's plunging numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been looking to delist the Key deer from the Endangered Species Act, per Florida Insider.
“There are things happening [to the Key deer] down there that would raise flags for any animal,” retired FWS biologist Tom Wilmers told Florida Insider. “And yet the agency is in denial. I just don’t understand how delisting or downlisting that animal helps anybody.”
And with climate change, things will get worse.
“[Society is] putting out 10 gigatons of carbon emissions per year, plus or minus, and those emissions are causing the planet to warm. And we know as the planet warms a lot of things are happening, from extreme weather events to waterways being ice-free for longer,” Duke University professor, Stuart Pimm told Florida Insider.
“They may not be quite as direct as someone going out with a shotgun and killing a bald eagle, but they are every bit as potent a factor in causing species extinctions.”
How many Key deer are left?
Those living outside the Florida Keys likely aren't familiar with the Key deer, per The Guardian, which is a smaller subspecies of the white-tailed deer. In the middle of the 20th century there were only a few dozen left due to overhunting, but the population began making a comeback when they gained ESA protection, and when a refuge was created in Big Pine Key. However, the Key deer population was nearly demolished by Hurricane Irma in 2017, which killed about 30 percent of them.
The Trump administration then attempted to delist the Key deer, despite the fact there were only about 750 Key deer left as of 2020. Conservationists were understandably outraged, and are now led to believe the FWS will fail protect many other species of the like, through the ongoing climate crisis, as that is a large part of their depleting numbers. Within a few years, the Florida Keys are expected to be partially under water, which means local animals will be driven out, or they will die off.
Much of the vegetation in Big Pine Key is also dead now due to rising sea levels, and many of the deer have been driven out.
Zoologist Nova Silvy, who has observed the Key deer for decades, is predicting the worst.
“Unless we can turn [climate change] around, I think we are going to be in deep trouble with these deer,” he said. “I mean, I won’t see it – but my daughter may.”
What can be done to save the Key deer?
There are a few things that could be done to preserve the Key deer population for a little while longer.
In addition to petitioning for policies that would systemically reverse the effects of climate change, and doing your part to keep your personal impact low, there are petitions you can sign to protect the beloved Florida-dwelling animal. Friends of the Everglades has a petition to keep the Key deer protected by the ESA, and so does nonprofit Key Deer Protection Alliance.
You can also donate to either of those organizations to fund their protection, or look into various volunteer opportunities throughout the Florida Keys — helping any environmental cause in the area will ultimately make a positive impact on the ecosystem, as a whole.