Even though the Key deer death toll had risen to 107 as of Friday, a bit of good news arrived this week.
Officers at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key have begun treating as many deer possible with doramectin, an antiparasitic medicine that serves as a preventive measure and treatment for New World screwworm.
After receiving a dose of doramectin on a piece of bread, the deer are marked with nontoxic paint in a specific color for the day they’re treated. A week after their first dose, since each one lasts seven days, officers will try to administer more treatments.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers worked with wildlife veterinarians to evaluate and select treatments as soon as the screwworm infestation was confirmed on Big Pine Key and No Name Key on Sept. 30.
Screwworms have since been confirmed on Summerland Key by entomologists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and screwworm flies have been found on Big Torch, Middle Torch, Little Torch, Cudjoe and Ramrod keys.
Screwworm flies lay their eggs in open wounds where larvae hatch and feed, basically eating the deer alive. Many of the deer wounds are believed to come from rutting — males battling each other for mates. So far, only six of the deer euthanized have been female.
The Key deer population was estimated at about 1,000 before the deaths and euthanizations of infected deer started. The deer, just 3 feet high, are found only in the Florida Keys and are on the Endangered Species List.
Katie Watts, lead biologist at the refuge, said many people have asked her what took so long to start treating the infested deer.
“There are many things we have to consider with the application of a chemical. That’s why it takes so much time,” she said, adding there are 23 other endangered species in the refuge in addition to the Key deer. The use of pesticides on refuge lands is strictly regulated, so threats to other wildlife were considered.
After a deer is euthanized with a bolt gun, the carcass is frozen for a few days, killing all the screwworm maggots and flies. Then the body is incinerated.
Watts said she hopes the community will continue observing the deer for odd behavior or wounds and that it’s going to be a community effort to eradicate the screwworm. Sterile male screwworms continue to be released to mate with female flies as well, a successful method created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1960s.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is looking for volunteers to help prepare food with doramectin that is given to the deer or hand out flyers to the public. Those interested should email Kristie Killam, park ranger, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, Watts encouraged the public to drive slow through Big Pine Key and to call (305) 470-6863 extension 7 if they see an infected Key deer.