photo of Jack Watson
Jack Watson (1913-82) is largely responsible for saving Key deer from extinction. (USFWS)

photo of key deer
Key deer habitat includes pine rocklands, hardwood hammock and mangrove forests. (John Oberheu)

The sign on the trail dedicated to Jack C. Watson at National Key Deer Refuge in Florida is as quiet and understated as the man himself: Watchful Steward of the Key Deer. Without Watson’s stewardship there might very well be no Key deer at all.

Unregulated hunting had brought the population of Key deer to an all-time low in the late 1940s—about 50 animals. Public interest in the small deer had been pumped up by J.N. "Ding" Darling’s political cartoons as well as a letter to President Harry Truman from an 11-year-old boy concerned about the Key deer.

By the early 1950s, the Boone and Crockett Club had donated $5,000 to hire Watson as a warden to protect the few remaining deer. Watson had been a funeral home director and ambulance driver in Miami; now he had joint law enforcement commissions from the state of Florida and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Watson had an imposing physical presence and a no-nonsense manner when dealing with poachers. He soon was named U.S. game agent, and his territory covered more than a million acres from the Marquesas Keys north and east, including the Everglades. In 1954, three years before National Key Deer Refuge was formally established, he was named its first refuge manager, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1975.

As the Florida Keys continued to develop, cars were as much a threat to Key deer as poachers, and Watson often rehabilitated injured deer in a pen at his home.

During Watson’s tenure on the refuge, the Key deer population grew to about 300. Others built on his efforts, and the population is now close to 800. The National Wildlife Federation named him Conservationist of the Year in 1973. In 1976, Watson received the Department of the Interior’s Meritorious Service award.