The Florida Keys Key deer live only in the Florida Keys, mainly the Lower Keys area. They are known to swim from island to island in search of food, but mainly for fresh water. Key deer inhabit nearly all habitats within their range of the Lower Keys. They feed on many available plant sources ranging from mangroves and thatch palm berries.
The Key deer is a subspecies of the white-tailed deer, yet is small in size. The adult male Key deer (known as bucks) averages 55-65 pounds and from it’s shoulder is almost 30 inches tall. While the adult female (known as a doe) averages 41 pounds with a height from it’s shoulder of 26 inches tall.
Key deer were hunted as a food supply by native tribes, passing sailors, and early settlers. Hunting them was banned in 1939, but poaching and construction caused the Key deer to plummet to near-extinction by the 1950s. The National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957.
Recent population estimates put the population between 300 and 800, putting it on the list of endangered species. Road kills from drivers on US 1, which traverses the deer’s small range, are also a major threat, averaging between 30 and 40 kills per year, 70% of the annual mortality.
However, the population has made an encouraging rise since 1955, when population estimates ranged as low as 25, and appears to have stabilized in recent years. Still, recent human encroachment into the fragile habitat and the deer’s relatively low rate of reproduction point to an uncertain future for the species.
Today, you can see Key deer living close to humans. The Key deer has little of the natural fear of man shown by most of their mainland relatives. The deer are often found in residents’ yards and along roadsides where tasty plants and flowers grow. This often results in car-to-deer collisions, as the deer are more active (and harder to avoid) at night. It is not unusual to see them at dusk and dawn, and it is common to see them beside the road as you drive through the Lower Florida Keys.