BIG PINE KEY, Fla. When the National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957, its first manager, Jack C. Watson, sometimes employed unorthodox tactics to discourage repeat poachers targeting the diminutive deer under his protection.
"If he found somebody's car parked and knew they were hunting, he would politely leave a message telling them not to come back again and disable the car, putting a few bullet holes in the gas tank or the engine," said Watson's son, Jack "Kip" Watson.
The senior Watson, a passionate protector of the endangered Key deer during his 17 years as refuge manager, was remembered Nov. 17 during a celebration of the refuge's 50th anniversary and debut of a new administration facility.
The 8,400-acre refuge includes mangrove forests, freshwater and salt marsh wetlands, pine rockland forests and tropical hardwood hammocks in the lower Florida Keys.
Adult Key deer are about the size of a large dog, with an average weight of 65 to 90 pounds, and are the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer.
"Key deer are not found anywhere else in the world," said Jim Bell, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ranger at the refuge.
They were hunted for food and sport, even after a Florida ban in 1939. Since the refuge was established, its deer population has increased from about 50 animals to a herd of about 700.
"If it wasn't for suppressing illegal hunting, the Key deer would have probably gone extinct," said Bell.
In 2003, the Florida Department of Transportation completed a $5.8 million project to install fencing and two vehicle overpasses on Big Pine Key so that deer can safely travel between the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean sides of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway.
More than 90,000 people visit the refuge each year, exploring popular areas including a nature trail named for the senior Watson, who died in 1982.
Efforts now focus on relocating deer to nearby islands that were part of their historical range. Bell said the goal is to move the deer off the endangered species' list.
Details at www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer.