Key deer deaths in 2012 were the highest on record since the National Key Deer Refuge managers started formal mortality counts in 1996, according to statistics.
Accidents with automobiles are the main killers, refuge Manager Nancy Finley said.
Deaths have steadily risen over the last six years -- climbing from 112 in 2007 to 197 last year. Of the 910 Key deer deaths recorded during that period, 75 percent have been blamed on vehicle collisions, the statistics reveal.
Other causes of death were disease, drowning, dog attacks, entanglement and combat among themselves during rutting season.
Most of the collisions occurred after dusk and before dawn, said Finley, and the majority happened on U.S. 1 in front of St. Peter Catholic Church and by the CVS Pharmacy off U.S. 1.
The section of U.S. 1 leading into downtown Big Pine Key, which has a long curve where cars are only beginning to slow down as they near the church, has long been a hot spot for Key deer/car accidents. Also, there are no street lights along this portion of the highway.
The CVS property is bordered by a "green zone or green area" where deer graze and regularly travel through, Finley said.
People feeding the deer from cars is also contributing to the problem. This causes the animals to have less fear of approaching vehicles, said the refuge manager.
"Key deer have plenty of food in the natural environment," she said. "Red mangrove leaves are highly nutritional. People don't need to feed them out of their cars."
Jerry Dykhuisen, president of the local Key Deer Alliance, would like to see refuge managers embark on an aggressive antifeeding campaign, as deer associate people and cars with food, he said.
Findley said refuge officials are open to the idea.
"The refuge may need to increase public outreach on Key deer issues and make a change in the roadside signs," she said. "People become dulled to them after awhile."
The rising death rates have occurred as a series of road projects in Big Pine Key were completed, said Mike Roberts, an environmental planner with the Monroe County government.
The road projects, finished in 2010, added extra turn lanes and allowed traffic to move at a quicker pace. However, neither the county nor the refuge have conducted studies to determine if vehicles are traveling faster now through the Big Pine Key area.
"Most people who live on Big Pine Key are careful, especially at night or early in the morning," said Dawn Kawzinsky, who works in The Citizen's circulation department and has had three Key deer run into her car in the 30 years she has lived there. "You see a deer near the road, you have your foot on the brake. ... They can just dart out so fast."
A slight and steady increase in Key deer death from disease in recent years is also troubling to Dykhuisen.
During the past 40 years, deaths attributed to disease averaged 2 percent per year, according to statistics. But that percentage has increased to 5 percent in the past decade. In 2012, 9 percent of the deaths occurring in Big Pine and No Name keys were linked to disease.
Dykhuisen applauded refuge managers for relocating 39 Key deer from No Name Key and Big Pine Key to Sugarloaf and Cudjoe keys between 2003 and 2005.
Moving the deer makes them less susceptible to diseases and to accidents, said Dykhuisen of Big Pine Key.
"They do not have any more habitat (on Big Pine and No Name keys) because of development," he said.
Key deer are a federally protected species and the signature species in No Name and Big Pine keys. The National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957 and is a federally administered National Wildlife Refuge operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Populations have rebounded in recent decades with the herd number now around 800, according to some estimates. The refuge is working on getting more exact numbers, managers said.
Key deer were hunted by American Indian tribes and early settlers. Hunting was banned in 1939, but widespread poaching and habitat destruction caused the Key deer population to dramatically drop to a near-extinction level by the 1950s. Fish and Wildlife Service officials created the refuge in 1957.
At that time, Key deer numbers were estimated anywhere between the high 20s and low 50s, according to historical accounts.