The Endangered Species Act: Defending a Delightful, Diminutive Deer

Doug Rains

The Florida Keys, a chain of small islands extending south and west off of the southern tip of Florida, hold a special place in American culture. For many, the mention of the Keys conjures up the taste of Key lime pie and picturesque views of pastel beach houses. What many may not realize is that the Keys are the home to a tiny, rare, charismatic, island-hopping animal beloved by Keys residents and tourists alike: The Key deer. 

Key deer are a small subspecies of the much more common and geographically widespread white-tailed deer. Key deer, like their white-tailed deer cousins, are brown and white-colored herbivores with nimble hoofed feet. The deer have characteristically white-colored tails, and males have antlers. Key deer, however, are about one third the size of white-tailed deer, standing at the most two feet tall and about 50 pounds. These dimensions make them about the size of a Labrador Retriever. 

While white-tailed deer range across most of North America, the Key deer is found only in the Florida Keys. Key deers’ small size and nimble legs, preference for coastal vegetation, and decreased need for fresh water make them experts at island-hopping in the Keys, but also make them poorly suited for life anywhere else. This means that if anything happens to their small island homes, Key deer have nowhere to evacuate. The already small range of Key Deer is subject to many pressures from humans. Rapid development of residential and commercial areas cause damage to the Key deer’s habitat and food sources, make them vulnerable to vehicular collisions as they search for food, and increase the chances of negative interactions with people. Rising sea levels and increasingly ferocious hurricanes, both made worse by climate change from runaway carbon emissions, threaten the low-lying island habitat of Key deer. Less wary of people than their cousins, Key deer are often hand-fed apples, corn, and other treats by well-meaning people. This reliance on people for food makes Key deer vulnerable to behavior changes and nutrient deficiencies that sometimes lead to starvation or poisoning. Fortunately for Key deer, many individuals, organizations, and elected representatives have come to understand  Key deers’ importance for the ecology and culture of the Florida Keys, and they became one of the first species receiving protections as an “endangered species”. 

In 1973, an act was passed in the United States which defines species which are “endangered” based on sound scientific data, and makes it illegal for individuals, businesses, or government agencies to trade, harass, or kill species listed as “endangered”. This act, the “Endangered Species Act of 1973” (ESA), was the first U.S. policy at the Federal level protecting species which were at risk of imminent extinction because of the actions of human beings. 

Key deer are a perfect example of the characteristics of endangered species. Key deer are also great examples of a species which has avoided extinction thanks to their listing pursuant to the ESA. Key deer continue to maintain healthy population levels thanks to the ESA. It is illegal to hunt, feed, or otherwise disturb Key deer. It is also now necessary for government agencies or businesses to ensure that planned construction projects do not interfere with the habitat and behaviors of Key deer. Future generations who live in or travel to the Florida Keys will delight in observing Key deer in their natural habitats because they have received protections under the ESA, which, despite attempts to weaken it from political figures, remains a powerful tool for defending vulnerable and important wildlife species. 

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, World Wildlife Fund