Commentary

Drive to delist Florida’s diminutive Key deer was pushed by feds’ wacky ‘WIG’ plan

Sea level rise, salty water and other threats were dismissed using bad data

March 10, 2022 7:00 am

The endangered Florida Key deer. Credit: Valerie Joan Preziosi, Save Our Key Deer

Have you ever seen a Key deer? They’re like a regular white-tail deer but scaled down to the size of a big dog. It’s as if someone crossed Bambi with Marmaduke.

I saw one for the first time in 2017 while driving through the Keys. This was a few months after Hurricane Irma plowed through the place. The roadsides were piled high with debris and every breeze carried a strong whiff of backed-up sewage.

First, I stopped at the National Key Deer Refuge visitor’s center, which at the time happened to be in a strip mall on Big Pine Key, next door to a pack-and-ship place and a martial arts academy. I wanted to make sure the refuge was open and that the deer had survived the storm. The staffers said yes (which I now know was not quite true).

I drove into the refuge and, once I got far enough off the beaten path, I stopped and got out of my car. As I strolled amid the smashed trees and torn-up underbrush, I saw a couple of the deer foraging for food. I wouldn’t call them “small” exactly — maybe a better word is “fun-sized.”

The diminutive deer have been on the endangered list since the first one was drawn up in 1967, along with such better known (and bigger) Florida critters as the panther and the manatee. But just two years after I spotted that pair amid the post-hurricane wreckage, the Trump administration proposed taking them off the list.

What a silly idea, I thought then. There are no more than 1,000 Key deer. They get run over a lot. And they live on hurricane-prone islands vulnerable to a rising sea level. Surely, they are the very definition of “endangered.”

But then last week I read a story in a British newspaper, the Guardian, that outlined just how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under then-President Trump tried really, really hard to get Key deer taken off of that list. When that didn’t work, the goal shifted to knocking the deer down a peg to merely “threatened.”

“Wait,” you say, “that sounds kinda familiar. Didn’t the feds do that to another iconic Florida species?”

How perceptive you are, dear reader! I bet you remember everything you’re supposed to buy when you go to the grocery store, too. (I’m lucky if I get out of Publix with fewer than two phone calls home for guidance.)

Yes, the Fish and Wildlife Service has already taken that same step with the manatee, ignoring the advice of scientists (1,000 dead manatees last year shows you how well that’s worked out). And now that same agency is considering something similar with the panther.

That’s why it’s instructive to see, with the Key deer, how the feds twisted both the English language and scientific data to try to meet a political goal of dumping them.

It’s all because of a WIG — and not the fabulous blonde kind that turns bald RuPaul into a Glamazon.

Wigging out

A mother Key deer gives its fawn a swimming lesson. Credit: Valerie Joan Preziosi, Save Our Key Deer

Key deer and panthers have something else in common: Both wound up on that first endangered list 55 years ago because humans kept shooting them. By the 1950s, these mighty Nimrods had shot so many of the deer that scientists said there were only a tiny number remaining — a mere 25.

The feds opened the deer refuge in 1958, guaranteeing the animals would have at least some safe habitat left, even as humans were building homes, stores, and roads all around them. But the refuge didn’t guarantee their future, any more than buying a house guarantees you’ll always have plenty to eat and drink.

Development outside the refuge eliminated a lot of the plants they regularly consumed and the freshwater ponds where they found something to drink. Meanwhile, the fearless deer kept wandering into people’s backyards and walking right up to them, not unlike Fido begging for treats.

People gave them junk food, sometimes while sticking their hands out of their car windows to do it. Key deer began hanging around the roads, which meant they were more likely to be flattened.

They faced other challenges, too. An infestation of flesh-eating screwworms in 2016 wiped out 15 percent of the population.

And it turns out they didn’t do so well during Irma, either.

“A lot of them were killed,” a retired biologist named Novy Silva, who began studying Key deer back in 1971, told me this week. “A lot of them drowned.”

Irma sent a massive storm surge sweeping across the Keys, he explained. The surge not only destroyed the buttonwood and mangroves they eat, but left saltwater in a lot of the places the deer used for slaking their thirst.

The deer became badly dehydrated, according to Jan Svejkovsky, who helps run the organization Save Our Key Deer.

The need for fresh water became so dire, he told me, that they convinced refuge employees set out brightly colored kiddie pools filled with water for the deer to drink. It was a desperate measure, like the biologists tossing out lettuce for the Indian River Lagoon’s starving manatees this spring.

Remember that kiddie pool scene like it’s an item on your grocery list. It will prove to be important later.

Despite Irma, despite the screwworms, despite all the cars that run them down and the weirdo who tied up three of them and stuffed them in his car so he could take pictures with them — despite all that, some of the feds believed the Key deer could be booted off the endangered list.

The southeastern regional office in Atlanta had decreed that, while Trump was in office, they were going to meet what a 2017 memo from assistant regional director Leo Miranda called “Wildly Important Goals,” or WIG for short.

As we all know, a wig is commonly used to cover up something you want to hide. This WIG  met that definition.

To fully appreciate the absurdity of what comes next in the WIG saga, I recommend you cue up the B-52s single by that name and play it while you read.

“Our WIG for FY17 was to conserve 30 species by delisting, downlisting, or precluding the need to list them,” Miranda wrote.

How do you “conserve” species by booting them off the endangered list, kicking them down the protection ladder to “threatened,” or never letting them on the list in the first place? No explanation for that tortured use of the term was ever offered. It carries the flavor of the Vietnam-era claim of “we had to destroy the village to save it.”

Among the 30 species that Miranda proudly cited as successfully meeting the WIG for the 2017 fiscal year was the Florida manatee. Manatees had never achieved the long-established criteria for being changed from endangered to threatened, but the agency cited computer models that said they’d be OK. Miranda’s memo makes it clear the wildlife agency did that just to meet the phony-baloney WIG.

Miranda then targeted the Key deer for the same WIG treatment, but more extreme. He drafted a memo to the agency’s top official, proposing “to delist the Florida Key deer.”

Said the memo: “This determination is based on the best available scientific and commercial information, which indicates that the threats to this species have been eliminated or reduced to the point that the species no longer meets the definition of an endangered or threatened species.”

The biggest lie in that sentence is the part about using “the best available scientific … information.”

Miranda wrote that there were “uncertainties regarding what effects changes in sea-level will have on Florida Key deer.” To make that assertion, he ignored a draft study circulated by the agency’s own scientists just a year earlier that said, flat-out, “The Florida Keys are going underwater due to sea level rise (SLR). All SLR scenarios agree and depict this to happen.”

More subtle, and thus sneakier, was a claim that Key deer would not lack for drinking water because they could handle a high level of saltiness. Here’s the part where you should remember the kiddie pools and think of a different abbreviation besides WIG (Hint: It’s spelled “B.S.”)

The basis for that ridiculous statement was a passing comment in a 1974 paper from a researcher that he’d seen deer drinking from one pond with a high salinity level, Svejkovsky told me. Someone working with that researcher had seen deer tracks near a pond with an even higher salinity. Neither report was peer-reviewed. That was it. There have been no subsequent studies.

“They were looking for any way they could to include the Key deer as one of those 30 species in the WIG,” Diana Umpierre of the Sierra Club told me.

The wildlife agency announced it would hold a public hearing on delisting the Key deer in August 2019 — but it would not release the report spelling out why it wanted to delist the deer until after the meeting. That secrecy made it difficult to urge the service to flip its WIG and spare the deer. But environmental groups condemned it anyway.

“Stripping the Key deer of protections to meet an arbitrary quota is like kicking a critically ill patient out of the emergency room to free up bed space,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Miami Herald.

The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity sued to get access to all the federal records. In the meantime, the U.S. Geological Survey stepped in with a report that Miranda’s recommendation had failed to consider the “best” information about what rising seas would do to the deer’s island home.

In May 2020, the agency changed its WIG (I picture this happening in a smoky backstage dressing room filled with feather boas). Now it tried to knock the deer down to threatened. By February 2021, though, the environmental groups had won legal access to most of the records and were (sorry for this one, folks) wigging out.

By this point, Trump had left office, and the urgency to achieve those WIGs had disappeared like so many classified documents that later turned up at Mar-A-Lago. The wildlife agency employs a watchdog in charge of “scientific integrity,” and last August he gave the Key deer down-listing report the equivalent of an F- in high school biology.

Deer vs. developers vs. inundation

I tried to get Miranda — now the regional supervisor — to answer questions about all this. I was told he was unavailable. Maybe he was out wig-shopping. I bet he looks smashing in a bouffant.

Instead, I got a statement from the agency’s spokesman, Chuck Underwood, saying they were not contemplating any change to the Key deer’s endangered status now. Instead, they’re doing a five-year assessment — nothing more.

When I asked the folks from Save Our Key Deer who would gain from dropping Key deer from the endangered list, the organization’s president, Valerie Preziosi, said the answer was obvious: “People who want to overdevelop the Keys. They’ll be able to develop huge tracts of land” that are now off-limits to protect the deer.

But their profit would be short-lived. Climate change is not going away, and that Keys land will be inundated soon, regardless of whether it belongs to deer or the developers..

Our fine Legislature, which is OK with spending millions of tax dollars on walls, pumps, and pipes to cope with sea level rise, just shut down an attempt at dealing with the cause. Gov. Ron “Barks At Teenagers” DeSantis refuses to take action, too, sneering that that’s just “left wing stuff.”

The way things are going, we’re eventually going to need to relocate those poor deer to some dry land, Svejkovsky told me.

Here’s my suggestion: Move the entire herd to Atlanta. Put them in the Fish and Wildlife Service regional office there. That’s pretty far from any rising seas.

In order to make room for them, we’ll need to relocate the wildlife service’s regional office and its employees to the Key Deer Refuge — after making sure they can all swim.

Gee, I wonder if you can use a WIG as a PFD.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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