By Justin Nobel
As Hurricane Irma slammed into south Florida in September, Dan Clark, manager of a complex of four national wildlife refuges in the Florida Keys, had evacuated and was at his mother’s house near Tampa. His eye was on the weather and his mind was on the multitude of plants and animals that inhabit the unique refuge system he oversees, which includes the well-known Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge.
There are about 20 federally endangered species in the Keys, and many of them exist nowhere else on Earth. “The dang eye of the hurricane tore right through the prime habitat for many of our most at-risk species,” said Clark.
One animal of particular concern was the Key deer, a charismatic, small subspecies of the white-tailed deer. Key deer were nearly eradicated by poaching during the 1950s, when the population dropped to 25. North America’s smallest deer, the animals rarely weigh more than 95 pounds and stand about three-feet tall at the shoulder. They live only in the Florida Keys.
“The deer can swim well, even in a storm surge situation, but not in 130 miles-per-hour winds,” said Clark.
According to Clark, there is no typical hurricane response for the deer. “With Irma,” he said, “I imagine they did everything from hiding behind garages to hunkering down in bunches of vegetation to running wildly through the street—it worked out well for some, it worked out poorly for others.”
Thanks to a survey conducted after Hurricane Irma by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas A&M University, and released in mid-October, we know just how well: About 14 to 22 percent of the Key deer population, which is estimated to be about 1,000 deer, was killed by the storm. Deer were found crushed by debris and impaled by wind-blown objects.
“If you are in the eye of a hurricane and you are wildlife,” says Clark, “it’s like Dorothy’s house: you are going to get thrown around.”
KIDDIE POOLS TO THE RESCUE
But deer that survived the storm faced new threats. To live on these low-lying islands, where the height across much of the deer’s habitat is a mere three feet above sea level, the animals need freshwater. Normally, they get that from freshwater marshes and holes in the coral rock. But Irma’s storm surge washed over much of the core habitat for Key deer, inundating critical watering holes with salty ocean water. About five days after the storm, the first refuge biologists returned to Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge. Seeing the lack of freshwater for animals, they improvised a unique solution: kiddie pools.
A fleet of fire trucks and police and refuge vehicles delivered about a dozen of the store-bought blue plastic pools, roughly the size of a small trampoline, to key locations between Sugarloaf Key and Big Pine and No Name keys. The pools also provided freshwater for other species, such as butterflies, dragonflies, and the endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit.
“We don’t take the decision to do something like this lightly,” said Clark. “The refuge is not a zoo, and we would prefer not to habituate wildlife to people. But based on the data we collected, the amount of overwash was significant enough that freshwater resources were limited.”