Please stop feeding the Key deer. Wildlife managers say it hurts, not helps

After Hurricane Irma plowed across the last remaining habitat for the endangered Key deer, residents began feeding them,

Federal wildlife managers in the Florida Keys have a message for residents: Please stop feeding the endangered deer.

Since Irma washed over Cudjoe Key Sept. 10, pushing a storm surge that submerged much of the Lower Keys including the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine, residents who have long tended to the deer like beloved pets began putting out water and food, fearful that saltwater contaminated foraging grounds.

Since the storm, 26 deer deaths have been confirmed. Of those, biologists blamed 21 directly on the storm but have not determined the cause for the other five.

Officials now worry that putting out dog food or grains not naturally in the deer’s diet could bring more harm and in recent weeks have repeated warnings about feeding them. Eating dog food, grain or other carbohydrates can increase acidity in the deer’s stomach, kill bacteria needed for digestion and result in diarrhea, enteritis or death, officials said.

“We appreciate the community’s vested interest in protecting the deer,” said refuge manager Dan Clark said in a statement. “That’s why we need as many people as possible to understand the serious health risks associated with supplemental feeding.”

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Big Pine and the surrounding islands provide the last habitat for the planet’s last herd of the dog-sized deer, which now number about between 700 and 1,000. Last year, a brutal outbreak of New World screwworm ravaged the herd, killing 135 before wildlife officials contained it a year later by releasing millions of infertile screwworm flies to knock down the population.

After Irma, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which normally discourages interactions with the deer, signed off on putting out water, but not food.

“Never food, only water,” said spokesman Ken Warren.

But residents, who posted frequent messages on Facebook including photos of scrawny deer, fretted that some deer might be stranded on islands without food, or that hard-hit foraging grounds would provide too little. They began doing their own surveys and worried that wildlife managers were not responding quickly enough.

The deer forage on a long list of natural trees and plants, including gumbo limbos, thatch palms and figs. The refuge has published a preliminary list on its Facebook page, but said residents could also look at what plants survived Irma’s powerful storm surge for other suitable plants.

Rain in recent weeks has also helped replenish watering holes and freshened pools contaminated with salt water, officials said, and they have asked residents in the Port Pine Heights, Koehn and Eden Pines neighborhoods to stop providing water. The rain is also helping vegetation regrow.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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