Location: Big Pine Key, Florida
Webpage: National Wildlife Refuge
General Description: The National Key Deer Refuge is a 8,500 acre refuge located on Big Pine Key and No Name Key in the Florida Keys. The Refuge is home to the endangered key deer, a sub-species of white-tailed deer that is endemic to the Florida Keys. With a current population of 650-700 deer, the primary objective is the protection of the habitat necessary for the survival of this species. With no fresh water source except rainfall, their survival is dependent on the fresh water lens created by limestone pools. The habitat is made up of 2400 acres of upland pine forests, 5100 acres of wetlands, and 1000 acres of marshes.
1) The Visitor Center is located in a small strip mall on Big Pine Key just north of US 1. While not the most picturesque setting, the Visitor Center does have a nice exhibit about the Key Deer and other wildlife. The volunteer was very helpful in identifying some trails we could take into the refuge.
2) The Watson and Mannillo Trails are both at the same parking lot near the north end of Big Pine Key. The Watson trail is wheel-chair accessible, but is only a short trip. The Mannillo Trail is about a mile in length and loops through the upland pine habitat with multiple interpretive signs. The most amazing thing was the number of dead pine trees that are visible. Come to find out these were caused by a recent storm that caused salt water incursion, killing the trees. The area is regenerating well, but at this point the habitat has little overstory.
3) There is also a short walk around one side of Blue Hole which was a great place to see birds and alligators.
4) The key deer is elusive and generally not out during the middle of the day, so we had little expectation to see one. However, on the drive out of the refuge we saw a key deer feeding along the side of the road. Even though we were told about them, I was amazed at the size of the deer. What we saw was certainly a full grown white-tailed deer, but was only the size of a small to medium sized dog. Amazing.