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Shrinking habitat raises questions about how to save endangered Key deer

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

On the Florida Keys, there's a species of deer that, even when they're at their biggest, they're only about the size of a golden retriever. They are, as my NPR colleague Nathan Rott describes them...

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Stupid cute.

FADEL: As Nate reports, these tiny, endangered deer are raising huge questions, like, how do you save a species whose only natural home is disappearing?

ROTT: The threat facing the Key deer is easy to see from the water off of Big Pine Key, says Nikki Colangelo.

NIKKI COLANGELO: In terms of being on the water and seeing it from the water and thinking about these small islands and imagining 1 foot, 2 feet, 3 feet of sea level rise and...

ROTT: It doesn't take much.

COLANGELO: It doesn't take much, yeah, because they're so low.

ROTT: Colangelo and her colleague Christian Eggleston work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And they say rapid sea level rise driven by climate change is putting everything on the Florida Keys at risk - billions of dollars of infrastructure and homes, 31 federally protected plants and animals, many of which, Eggleston says, live only here.

CHRISTIAN EGGLESTON: So it's not just Key deer. All the coastal species across the U.S. are facing similar challenges.

ROTT: Habitat loss is the largest cause of extinction on the planet. Agriculture, logging, development - three-quarters of the planet's land has been altered by human hands. Human-caused climate change is now altering the rest.

EGGLESTON: Roads are underwater. Different things are being eroded away. And we're watching islands disappear.

ROTT: For federal wildlife managers like Eggleston and Colangelo, whose job is to keep species alive, this raises an almost existential crisis.

COLANGELO: Because the options range from giving up and letting a species go extinct to doing absolutely everything you can and putting animals in zoos or...

ROTT: Or moving plants and animals to new places where they haven't lived before, like higher ground.

COLANGELO: I don't want any species to go extinct on my watch. You know, I don't think any of us do. I mean, and - but where's society on that?

ROTT: Colangelo asks because some of the options available can be controversial. For example, if you move a species, how do you know it won't become invasive or a problem in the new habitat you put it in? Will the people who live there want it?

COLANGELO: There needs to be political support. There needs to be societal support.

ROTT: The sad irony for those who've worked to preserve the Key deer is that it's a species they've already saved. As recently as the 1950s, there were only a few dozen Key deer left on the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In the Keys of southern Florida, the tiny, elusive Key deer were found to be facing extinction from overhunting, land development, hurricanes and fires.

ROTT: Conservation efforts from private groups, individuals and, eventually, the federal government helped stop the bleeding. The Key deer was one of the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act, which became law 50 years ago. Today, the deer are so prevalent on Big Pine Key that residents have to protect their gardens with short fencing.

VALERIE PREZIOSI: All right, so here's deer.

ROTT: Just a few of them.

PREZIOSI: Hey, guys.

ROTT: Valerie Preziosi lives on a skinny band of land south of Big Pine Key. There are, like, eight deer lounging in her yard.

PREZIOSI: So this first little one here - she still has a little bit of dots.

ROTT: Preziosi is the founder and president of a local nonprofit called Save Our Key Deer. Inside her home, pictures of the little ungulates decorate just about every wall of her living room.

PREZIOSI: Basically, they're like people's dogs. They're like pets because you see them every day. Come home from work - there they are. People have names for them.

ROTT: Partly, she says, because the deer has already lost so much natural habitat from development and sea level rise.

PREZIOSI: They're basically forced to live on our properties.

ROTT: An estimated 2% of the Key deer's preferred habitat still exists on Florida's urbanized southern tip. That's because the habitat, which exists only here, is typically found at higher elevations, where people like to build and where the saltwater can't reach.

CHRIS BERGH: Where the pine trees grow, that's where the fresh water is.

ROTT: Chris Berg is with the Nature Conservancy. I met him a few hundred yards from his pine-surrounded house on Big Pine Key, closer to the ocean in what he describes as a denuded transition zone.

BERGH: You can see dead pine trees here. You can see dead palms.

ROTT: Sun-bleached snags stabbing out of a soggy, soupy earth.

BERGH: And these are - you know, these are hardy plants, but they need fresh water. And the sea is coming in, unfortunately, faster and faster over time.

ROTT: And for Bergh, who's spent most of his adult life trying to protect the Keys' imperiled species, seeing this shift has been sobering. And it's raising uncomfortable questions for him, too.

BERGH: At what amount of sea level rise do we need to pull the trigger on adaptation choices? Like, do we give up? Or do we move them? Or do we - what do we do?

ROTT: The questions, Bergh says, are as much about human values as they are about logistics.

BERGH: If you move Key deer to a whole series of zoos, like people have done with pandas and, you know, you name it - endangered species - you can do that. You can keep them going. But at what cost and to what end? You know, is that really a future for the species?

MARTHA WILLIAMS: We have always looked at the Endangered Species Act as creatively and flexibly as we can.

ROTT: Martha Williams directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that will ultimately make the decision about what to do with the Key deer. She says the Biden administration has proposed new rules to help species like the Key deer by allowing wildlife managers to move plants and animals.

WILLIAMS: In some place that it wasn't its historic habitat but might be just the habitat it needs to survive into the future because what we're seeing with climate is it's moving the suitable habitat for some species. So if we're really committed to conserving, especially a species like the Key deer, you know, that's ridiculously cute, then we've got to be thinking about all of the tools we can use.

ROTT: Williams says federal wildlife managers don't plan to move the Key deer in the immediate future, though she won't rule it out in the long term. On Big Pine Key, Bergh says regardless of what happens with his home's namesake deer, there is a lesson to be learned here.

BERGH: Really, reducing the root causes of climate change is the only thing that's going to prevent the problem that we're experiencing in the Keys now from, you know, metastasizing across the globe.

ROTT: Doing that will require reducing fossil fuel use globally in a short window of time, a challenge that makes the decisions around the Key deer seem as small as the species itself.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, the Florida Keys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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