Steve MacLaughlin

How Big Pine Key's Deer Refuge Was Impacted During Irma

While residents of the Keys worked hard to rebuild their homes and businesses, and scientists work to regrow the reefs, one vulnerable area is bouncing back on its own after a direct hit.

Big Pine Key’s National deer refuge became ground zero for Hurricane Irma’s fierce wind and driving rain.

“We had gusts on Big Pine Key, 140 to 160 mile an hour winds. Either trees were broken in half, limbs were snapped off, leaves were turned brown just from like salt burn,” said one local expert

During the storm, the deer went into survival mode and used their instincts and common sense to stay alive.

“These islands and the creatures that live on them are adapted to change and they’re adapted to periodic storms. They’re good swimmers, they’re street savvy, they hunker down in the lee of things; either in the forest or behind houses and things like that.”

But many deer were unable to survive. The population had already dropped because of the screw worm outbreak in 2016. That’s why the refuge was excited at how quickly things began to improve.

“We were all cautiously optimistic. Folks started reporting back about observations of wildlife almost immediately after the people started to return, so we started getting reports, yes there’s key deer that made it.”

The key deer are the stars of the refuge, but in reality, they are only one small part of a much bigger picture.

“The key deer are these amazingly beautiful creatures. To protect the key deer, you protect the habitat for all these other important species. We’re talking birds, butterflies, alligators, and fish. You have the pollinators, the bees and the butterflies. So everything is part of a big, interwoven ecosystem that they’re all kind of dependent on each other.”

Big Pine was one of the worst hit spots in all of the Keys. Many people lost their homes or businesses and parts of the island will never be the same. But the recovery of the key deer refuge is truly encouraging.

“There are parts of the island and parts of the island and parts of the refuge that still look a whole lot closer to the hurricane impact time, but up here on northern Big Pine Key, things are really starting to return to normal fairly quickly. Nature’s amazingly resilient."

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