Key deer, the lovably docile and locally iconic herbivores that meander across the piney marshlands and in-town streets of the Lower Florida Keys, were hit hard by Hurricane Irma.

Some survivors seemed listless and dehydrated after Irma wracked the hard-hit Big Pine Key island, home to National Key Deer Refuge. The storm’s surge — 4 feet high in places — inundated freshwater drinking holes, turning the water salty and unpalatable. And the 180 mile-per-hour winds lifted Atlantic Ocean water into the air and down onto the vegetation that the deer eat.

After the storm passed, reports began streaming in to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) of sick-looking deer crumpled in the marsh or zigzagging across roads. Something had to be done.

Bucking long-standing policy, the FWS decided that residents and employees could provide water to the deer, though feeding the deer is not encouraged.

"If the deer are suffering, we have the ability to provide fresh water to get them over the hump," said Kate Watts, biologist for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex. "These deer just went through a screwworm infestation so their population is down. They're an endangered species. And they've lost a ton of habitat in the storm. So it's our duty to assist them whenever we can."

The decision was applauded by Colleen Fuller, a deer lover on Big Pine who manages a Facebook page dedicated to North America's smallest deer. The page's followers have doubled to 1,800 since Irma. Most commenters worry about the Key deer’s future.

"I was up on No Name Key (on [Sept. 17]) and saw a couple of deer at the end of a road and they just looked at me like, 'Are you going to help me?,'" Fuller said. "I did give them some fresh water. I’ll not lie. They drank it like they never drank water before. They were so thirsty."

A tough year

A Key deer wandering alongside damaged home The deer of Big Pine Key had just gotten over a screwworm infestation when Hurricane Irma hit. (Photo: Dan Chapman/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/flickr)

About three-fourths of the dog-sized deer roam Big Pine and No Name Key, as they have for 13,000 years. Poaching, urbanization, cars and truck collisions rendered the deer nearly extinct in the 1950s.

FWS declared the Key deer an endangered species in 1967 and undertook an ambitious recovery program to rebuild the population. Creation of the refuge, a decade earlier, largely ensured safe zones for the big-eyed, Bambi-like herbivores.

The deer population was estimated between 700 and 1,000 in early 2017. It's been a bad year, though. An outbreak of screwworm disease, a fly-borne, flesh-eating parasite, killed about 135 of the animals. (Vehicles typically kill the same number each year.) In response, the Keys were quarantined. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released millions of sterile flies across the Lower Keys. Refuge staff, joined by dozens of locals, dosed the deer with anti-parasitic chunks of bread.

By April 2017, the outbreak had been contained. But by interacting so closely with the deer, humans are conditioning them to rely on humans. It doesn't help that residents also treat the deer as pets, watering, feeding, snuggling and taking selfies with the adorable creatures.

Irma was a huge blow to man and animal alike. Nine people died in the Keys. Roughly 25 percent of homes were ruined, 75 percent damaged. Power remains out on chunks of the 120-mile-long Florida Keys, including swaths of Big Pine Key. As of Sept. 27, a curfew remains in effect for some communities.

Some Key deer succumbed to the storm. Service personnel have tallied about 18 deaths and have carted away deer from canals, roadsides and backyards. On an 8,500-acre refuge covered in mangrove marsh and piney wetlands, it has been impossible to fully account for the number of deer that didn't survive Irma.

So the struggle turns to the living.

A reading of 10

A Key deer stands in water on Big Pine Island Hurricane Irma's salty waves have ruined many of the Key deer's favored watering holes. (Photo: Dan Chapman/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/flickr)

Chris Eggleston spent a recent weekend traipsing around Big Pine and No Name keys testing water. He dropped a salinity gauge into roadside puddles, marsh bogs, mangrove swamps, mosquito ditches and the Blue Hole, a former limestone quarry and popular refuge attraction.

Freshwater registers zero parts per thousand. A reading of 10 or below is considered palatable enough for a deer to drink. The ocean registers about a 35 — very salty and unhealthy.

A small lake on No Name Key surrounded by wiregrass, saw palmettos and sea grapes seemed an ideal spot for deer to slake their thirst.

"This should be pretty fresh," surmised Eggleston, project leader at the Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

It registered 18.17.

"This is not good news," he said.

The lowest reading Eggleston got: 15.73.

Irma's waves and salt-infused rains ruined many of the Key deer's watering holes. Rarely before, according to refuge biologists, have so many water sources turned so salty. Hurricane Wilma in 2005 brought a six-foot storm surge to Big Pine Key, and the FWS and locals set out water for the deer.

"I don't know how many we saved or didn't save, but they came up and drank the water, so it worked," said Kristie Killam, a park ranger on the refuge. Very little rain has fallen on the Keys since Irma. Key deer, consequently, may be dying of thirst.

A thirsty deer drinks water provided by USFWS at National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key The Key deer are thankful for the fresh water, but not all the residents of Big Pine Island are keen on the idea. (Photo: Dan Chapman/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/flickr)

Dan Clark, the refuge manager, said the refuge had secured a source of water its biologists would put out for the Key deer and other thirsty animals. FWS personnel will disperse shin-high tubs of water to more rural areas of the refuge. Clark acknowledged that the water needs of residents remains of paramount importance. But if locals have water resources and want to help, the deer could use the help.

Not everybody agrees.

"We have too many deer," said Robert Ehrig, a resident of Big Pine Key. "We may be beyond carrying capacity. It's better to just get a stable healthy core (of deer). Let the natural process work."

Fresh water, though, benefits other threatened and endangered species, too, like the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, Miami blue butterfly and the Key Largo cotton mouse. If they survived Irma's hellacious winds — a dubious proposition —– they're probably thirsty.

This story was originally published for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and it is republished with permission here.

Dan Chapman is a public affairs specialist with the Southeast Region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Thirsty Key deer get a helping hand after Irma
With fresh water supplies contaminated by Hurricane Irma, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees are bucking the rules to keep Key deer in Florida alive.