Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Pennsylvania
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Pennsylvania Project

Structured Decision Making for Key Deer Management and Recovery

October 2013 - June 2014


Participating Agencies

  • Florida Keys Refuge Complex

The Key deer (O. v. clavium) is a well-known trust resource species for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the primary impetus for the formation of the National Key Deer Refuge (NKDR). With the establishment of the National Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge in 1957 along with years of targeted conservation efforts, the population has increased and their range has expanded. However, 75% of individuals of the species currently reside on Big Pine Key and No Name Key (the core of the range in terms of abundance and habitat availability), where more than 500 individual exist. There are still many obstacles to the recovery of Key deer, several of note include threats from disease, storm events, habituation, growth and development pressures, and global climate change (sea level rise). The species appears to be close to, and possibly above, biological carrying capacity in the core of the range (Big Pine Key and No Name Key). A negative aspect of the concentration of individuals on two islands is that “all eggs are in one basket,” where there is potentially limited resilience from any one threat described heretofore. An additional complication is the species listing status as federally endangered, which places limitations on certain elements of resource management. Concerns associated with this core population are also related to impacts on the ecosystem and the vegetation community due to their locally high abundance. In the core, rare and highly palatable plant species (including federally listed plants) are browsed by deer (which control the vegetation) with some evidence that East Indian hardwood species are now failing in recruitment. Balancing the habitat management to benefit the breadth of listed species (including listed plants, butterflies etc.) in the refuge is a consideration that needs to be evaluated in the long run within this core area. Deer ecology and management is further complicated by habituation issues and the full gamut of urban interface issues, not the least of which is human-provided foods to deer that affect their behavior and physiology. Several elements of this urban interface have been addressed through regulatory processes in Monroe County (e.g., Big Pine Key-No Name Key HCP; USFWS’s Biological Opinion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s administration of the National Flood Insurance Program; State and County Rate of Growth statutes and ordinances), but in many cases these processes have not been as successful as anticipated. Again, the concept that Key deer are listed as Endangered, as well as identified as at or above biological carrying capacity in a portion of their range, complicates management of the species relative to identified stressors and conflicts in the community. Structured Decision Making: Given the complexity of the issues briefly presented above, it seems appropriate to use a structured decision making (SDM) process to focus efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their management responsibility for Key deer. Structured decision making is a way to prioritize goals and objectives given a well-defined problem. The benefit of the SDM process is that it provides a transparent basis for decision making and maximizes the chances that all alternative actions are identified and evaluated objectively. The SDM process requires that the primary decision maker be identified, which in this case is the Refuge Manager of Key Deer NWR on federal lands. However, there are numerous stakeholders including Monroe County, FDOT, FEMA, Florida agencies, and the public who must be part of any SDM process. Also, any decisions associated with the Endangered Species Act must involve other divisions within FWS, such as Ecological Services. Having subject matter experts in deer ecology and management participate in the SDM process would likely be useful. We propose the following activities in connection with this project: Plan and facilitate a series of SDM workshops to address a preliminary problem statement of “How to establish a healthy and wild Key deer population in the lower Keys.” We propose to develop and refine the problem statement with the refuge manager, who is the key decision maker, prior to the first workshop. For example, if “healthy” is going to be used in the problem statement it needs to be defined. Prior to the first workshop, Diefenbach and Wagner will visit the Florida Keys to meet with refuge staffs and other stakeholders and also learn more about the local community, ecology, and management issues facing the Key deer. Also, at this time we will work with stakeholders to schedule dates for the three workshops. We propose three SDM workshops attended by people identified as stakeholders, such as USFWS employees, representatives of federal, state, county, and local agencies, and experts in deer ecology and management. The stakeholder group will be identified with the assistance of refuge staff.