New report: Sea-level rise will affect Key deer more than any other U.S. endangered species

kwadlow@keynoter.comDecember 28, 2013 

Key deer are only about 30 inches tall at the shoulder.

KEYSINFONET

A new report on the threat to endangered species from rising sea levels adopted the Key deer as its top poster critter.

"Three-quarters of the world's Key deer live on just two islands: Big Pine Key and No Name Key," says the report from the Center for Biological Diversity. "About 86 percent of islands occupied by the Key deer are less than 3 feet above sea level."

The report, "Deadly Waters: How Rising Seas Threaten 233 Endangered Species," was released by the Tucson, Ariz.,-based environmental group earlier this month. It sticks to endangered species found in the U.S.

"The Key deer's pine rockland habitat has already been reduced by rising seas," it says, "and up to 96 percent of Big Pine Key's pine forest and hardwood hammocks could be inundated by 2100."

The Nature Conservancy, which maintains a Lower Keys office, has spent years charting the expected effect of sea-level rise in the Keys. One of the consequences has been a major reduction of the conservancy's program to buy undeveloped Keys land for preservation.

"When buying land and possessing it, there was the assumption that land would be around for a very long time," Chris Bergh, The Nature Conservancy's South Florida conservation coordinator, said Friday.

"Now that it's become obvious that sea-level rise is happening and accelerating," Bergh said, "that kind of conservation investment is much less certain than it used to be."

Loggerhead sea turtles, the most common marine turtle in Florida Keys waters, were ranked second on the Center for Biological Diversity's list of top-five "species at risk."

Rising seas will inundate many Florida beaches that loggerheads need for nesting, it contends.

"As the beaches shrink, crowding will increase the likelihood that female turtles inadvertently dig up other nests, as well as the rate of nest infections and predation," the report says. "Beachfront development and seawalls in many areas of the coast will prevent ... nesting turtles from moving inland."

"In the Florida Keys, where much of the land is below 6 feet in elevation, 24 endangered species are already suffering major impacts," the report says. "The endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit has lost almost half of its habitat because of sea-level rise, and the Key tree cactus is dying off as the soil becomes too salty."

Nearly 60 percent of the 120 endangered species in Florida could be lost to sea-level rise, the report says.

"In the Florida Keys alone, sea-level rise threatens more than 20 endangered species including the West Indian manatee, elkhorn and staghorn corals, five nesting sea turtles, and nine endangered species unique to these islands, from the Miami blue butterfly to the Key Largo cotton mouse."

Besides the Key deer and loggerheads, the center's other top-five endangered animals threatened by climate change are the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel, now found mostly along Maryland's Chesapeake Bay shoreline; the Western snowy plover, a seabird that lays its eggs in beach sand; and the Hawaiian monk seal.

The Center for Biological Diversity based its report on studies from federal government agencies and other scientific sources.

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