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The Trump administration is considering removing one of Florida's most beloved animals from the endangered species list. The Key deer is named for its habitat in the Florida Keys. In the Keys, environmental groups say the federal government isn't accounting for the challenges the deer face, including sea level rise. NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Key deer are tiny versions of white-tailed deer, typically at the shoulder just two or three feet tall. They're cute, popular with tourists and used to be found on more than a dozen Florida islands. Today, most of them live on a single island - Big Pine Key.
JAN SVEJKOVSKY: There's a - it's a little buck, one spike on each side. My guess is he's a year old.
ALLEN: Jan Svejkovsky is a wildlife biologist who works as a volunteer with Save Our Key Deer. We're in his car surveying some of the damage done to the deer's habitat two years ago in Hurricane Irma.
SVEJKOVSKY: Here you can see that this is all dead. Mostly this was black mangrove. You know, the deer here on this peninsula, mangrove is a very, very big part of their diet. And they lost a lot of it.
ALLEN: Hurricane Irma had a big impact on Key deer. Hundreds died in the storm and its aftermath. A major problem is a scarcity of fresh water. Irma inundated the island, filling freshwater ponds with seawater.
Svejkovsky and his wife Valerie Preziosi run Save Our Key Deer. They've been monitoring the ponds and checking their salinity. On one part of the island, a peninsula called Long Beach, Preziosi uses a handheld meter to test the water in a pond the deer used to frequent.
What was the reading on that?
VALERIE PREZIOSI: Sixty-one-point-eight parts-per-thousand, so that's double seawater.
SVEJKOVSKY: You know, this part of their habitat is now dead because post-Irma, it has no drinkable water.
ALLEN: Many deer now get water from drainage lines from air conditioners and buckets left out by residents. The problem is likely to get worse with climate change. The sea level here is expected to rise by as much as two feet by 2060. As that happens, the amount of fresh water available for Key deer is likely to diminish.
Many deer have also died from a disease - screwworm - and from being hit by cars. Today, the total population is around 600 animals. Given those numbers and the challenges they've faced, many here were surprised when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it's recommending taking Key deer off the endangered species list.
ALLEN: Nearly 100 people turned out for a recent meeting convened by Fish and Wildlife officials. Most of them were Key deer advocates. Roxanna Hinzman with Fish and Wildlife did her best to allay their concerns.
ROXANNA HINZMAN: There has been no final decision to delist the Key deer.
ALLEN: The recent decline of the Key deer population and the deaths of hundreds of them, Hinzman says, in itself isn't a reason to keep the species on the list. In the past, despite hurricanes, fires and disease, she says Key deer have always rebounded.
HINZMAN: These are a subspecies of white-tailed deer, and they're very resilient. So as long as they've got the habitat and the resources they need, we're expecting that they will continue.
ALLEN: Because they're currently endangered, the islands where most Key deer live - Big Pine Key and No Name Key - have strict habitat conservation plans that limit development. Vivian Beck with the Key Deer Protection Alliance believes that's a factor in the move to take them off the endangered species list.
VIVIAN BECK: So what's the one thing stopping development in Big Pine Key and No Name? The Key deer.
ALLEN: U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials acknowledge that the biggest threat they see to Key deer is rising sea levels, and it put off an assessment while they get more information on that. Advocates see that as a good sign, that compelling scientific information may yet force the government to keep Key deer on the endangered species list. Greg Allen, NPR News, Big Pine Key, Fla.
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