Orchids, cactus, and air-plants add to the rich variety of plants. At least
466 species of plants have been found on Big Pine Key alone. Within
the Key’s underlying rock are natural solution holes created by rainfall
dissolving the island’s limestone substrate.
These natural depressions act as efficient rain water collectors and
historically have enabled the Key deer to thrive on Big Pine Key when
other islands were dry.
The Blue Hole is an abandoned limestone quarry. The rock material
removed was used to build many of the original roads on Big Pine Key.
Since there is no inlet or outlet to the Blue Hole, its existence is
dependent on rainfall and from salt water which flows through the
surrounding limestone. Fish, turtles, alligators and the occasional
wading bird can be found in the Blue Hole. Alligators can often be seen
hugging the shoreline, lazily sunning themselves. Do not feed or molest
the alligators—it is dangerous and illegal! Access for the disabled is
Source - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Page 2 of 4
National Wildlife Refuges in the Florida Keys and Key West
National Key Deer Refuge
National Key Deer Refuge is located in the Lower Keys and
consists of a patchwork of small and large tracts of pine rockland
forest, dense mangrove forest flooded by salt water, hardwood
hammocks and freshwater wetlands. Most of the refuge is open
to the public. The refuge has three self interpreted areas—the
Blue Hole, the Jack Watson Wildlife Trail and the Fred Manillo
(wheelchair accessible) Wildlife Trail. Refer to the map for their
location. Also, visitors are welcome to hike refuge fire roads that
are open for access. There are additional hiking trails on Cudjoe
Key, Upper Sugarloaf Key, Lower Sugarloaf Key and the trail
locations that are shown on the map.
Big Pine Key has extensive growths of Florida slash pine, silver
palms, thatch palm and poisonwood. Poisonwood produces an
oil which can cause a rash to humans similar to poison ivy. To
identify it, look for telltale “burn” marks on the leaves.
The Jack C. Watson Wildlife Trail is a 2/3 mile loop through pine rockland forest and freshwater wetlands. The
Fred C. Manillo Wildlife Trail is an 800-foot wheelchair accessible pathway, ending at an observation platform
overlooking a freshwater wetland. Both trail heads are in a parking lot located approximately 1/4 mile north of the
Blue Hole on Key Deer Blvd.
All wildlife and plants on a National Wildlife Refuge are protected. Endangered and threatened wildlife as listed on
the federal Endangered Species List receives priority protection. This refuge protects the endangered Key deer
Lower Keys marsh rabbit and the silver rice rat to name a few.
Key deer are found on approximately 30 islands in the lower keys. The Key deer is the smallest sub-species of the
Virginia white-tailed deer. They were isolated here about 4,000-10,000 years ago when the Wisconsin glacier
melted and ocean levels rose, creating a chain of islands. They are geographically and genetically isolated from
other populations of white-tail deer and have evolved and adapted to a subtropic environment. Because the Key
deer population is low and remains under threat of extinction from human interaction, the subspecies is listed as
endangered, receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act. This increased human interaction is having
many influences on the Key deer and causing changes in their behavior. Feeding them causes them to
congregate making them more susceptible to disease. Loss of alarm and flight response makes the deer more
vulnerable to harassment or death from dogs, cars, and poachers.
Under federal and state law, it is illegal to feed or disturb endangered or threatened species and refuge
regulations prohibit feeding or disturbing any wildlife on a National Wildlife Refuge. The least obtrusive way to
observe wildlife while traveling along the roads is to remain fully within your vehicle.
If you are out of your vehicle or hiking on the refuge, do not approach wildlife, extend your arms towards them or
attempt to call them to you. National Wildlife Refuges are havens for wild animals. Please do not treat wildlife as
pets or expect them to behave as pets!
Also, protected are such wildlife species as the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, songbirds, wading birds,
shorebirds and a variety of unique West Indian plants. For more information on birds of the Keys, a checklist, and
suggested places to observe birds, see the refuge brochure Birds of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges
which is available at the refuge visitor center.
Key West and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuges
Encompassing numerous islands known locally as the Backcountry, Key West and Great White Heron National
Wildlife Refuges are among the oldest refuges in the nation. These areas were set aside for the primary purpose
of maintaining a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. In contrast to the “main” Keys (linked by the
Overseas Hwy/US 1), the Backcountry, with a few exceptions, is a pristine, uninhabited area of islands scattered
amidst the biologically rich waters of the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. In 1975, Congress recognized the
special qualities of these refuges by designating many of the islands as part of the National Wilderness
Preservation System, providing them with additional protection. Both refuges are of great interest scenically and
scientifically, exemplifying a subtropical region unlike any other part of the United States.
Peering westward from Key West, the southernmost point in the continental U.S., one gazes upon Key West
National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge was the first National Wildlife Refuge designated in the Florida Keys. It was
established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 to curtail the slaughter of birds whose feathers were highly valued in
the hat industry. Wading birds were threatened with extinction before this refuge began providing a safe haven for
them and other threatened plant and animal species.
Encompassing more than 300 square miles of open water and 2,019 acres of land on 26 islands, the refuge
protects habitat for a wide variety of birds, including nesting and/or wintering populations of terns, frigate birds,
white-crowned pigeons, ospreys and great white herons. The sandy beaches are nesting areas for the
endangered Atlantic green and loggerhead turtles and is the only breeding site in the U.S. for the endangered
Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge is a vast array of pristine, isolated keys extending more than 290
square miles of open water in the Gulf of Mexico from Key West to Marathon. Refuge lands total 6,297 acres. The
habitats of these keys are almost without exception, low mangroves and are not easily accessible.
Established in 1938, the refuge provides permanent protection to the largest of North America’s wading birds—
the great white heron. With long graceful plumes, this color variation of the great blue heron is found only in the
Florida Keys and south Florida. The only known breeding colony of laughing gulls in the Lower Keys also nest
here as well. Equally significant, the few beaches on the islands of this refuge also provide nesting habitat for
loggerhead and green turtles. The marine waters are habitat for leatherback and Kemps ridley turtles and the
occasional manatee. These waters are vital nursery grounds for hundreds of species of fish and shellfish. The
refuge also preserves the scenic, wild character of the Florida Keys Backcountry.