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Rare white deer have a more promising future

07/16/2017, 12:02am EDT
By By MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

Markey: Largest herd in the world is now protected


A white doe and her brown fawn graze in a meadow at the defunct Seneca Army Depot in upstate New York. The fenced compound holds the world's largest pure white deer herd. SENECA WHITE DEER INC/DENNIS MONEY

ROMULUS, N.Y. — Without knowing it, the largest white deer herd in the world is now protected, and it should flourish in the coming years.

The future of the white deer, an anomaly created when a sprawling former military depot was fenced off in 1941, had been in doubt while local government officials struggled to find an appropriate use for the site, which the U.S. Army closed in 2000 and then transferred ownership to development entities in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York.

The defunct Seneca Army Depot, which covers more than 10,000 acres, was a mass storage site for munitions and, during the Cold War era, the armaments housed here most likely included nuclear weapons. 

Cemetery Deer from Dennis Money on Vimeo.

The Department of Defense secured the site with more than 20 miles of high fences and, in doing so, a rare gene that produces pure white or “ghost” deer was concentrated inside the compound.

In addition to an air strip, rail terminus, military buildings, and more than 500 ammunition bunkers or igloos, the sprawling site also includes large areas of woods, meadows, and ideal wildlife habitat.

Inside that enclosure, interbreeding combined with the recessive gene that carried a natural variation from the brown color of most white-tailed deer created the large number of white deer.

The white deer are not albino. They have brown eyes and are otherwise every bit as healthy as the brown deer. The white trait is referred to as “leucistic” — meaning they simply lack the brown pigmentation in their coats.

After the fence went up, white deer started to appear on the landscape and, since they were protected from most predators by that fence and only very limited hunting was permitted by the Army, the white deer herd grew to as many as 300 animals living alongside about 700 brown deer.

When the military left the site, there was concern that the fence would deteriorate, the deer inside the compound would roam beyond the boundaries, and the white herd would be lost since their high visibility would make them easy targets for hunters and easy prey for predators.

There were also concerns that a buyer would purchase the base, remove the fence, and carve up the tract, removing much of the wildlife habitat. 

A lot of uncertainty haunted the site as it spent many years in limbo.

Finally, about a year ago, much of the available base property was purchased by local businessman Earl Martin, who owns the nearby Seneca Iron Works. 

 After Martin’s successful $900,000 bid for about 7,000 acres of the depot, he was approached by Seneca White Deer Inc., a nonprofit group that had been advocating for protecting the herd for nearly two decades.

Martin’s interest, now operating as Deer Haven Park LLC, and Seneca White Deer Inc. have partnered with a plan to run year-round bus tours at the former base. Martin has also done much to enhance the habitat and secure the fence, which had been neglected since the military left the site.

“We are pleased as punch with the way things have worked out,” said Dennis Money, the president of Seneca White Deer Inc. 

“It looked bleak for a while, but I think the fact that people really wanted to see the white deer protected was a big factor. And Earl Martin certainly deserves the credit for making this happen. He’s a very good businessman and a guy who gets things done.”

Money said a welcome center is being planned, with the goal of offering the bus tours sometime in the fall. He hopes to see a ripple effect throughout the area, with hotels and bed and breakfast establishments, restaurants, and wineries benefiting from additional tourism and the jobs it should generate.

“You end up pushing so long for your first goal of saving the white deer, and then realize you have other goals, such as figuring out a way to open this incredible place up to tours,” he said. “We want to do this in a professional manner and save the white deer, while also improving the economy of the area.”

Money expects the colorful military background of the site — plus other elements of its rich history — to add to the interest that will draw visitors to the area, which is about 50 miles southeast of Rochester.

In its role as a military storage site, one of the final duties of the former Seneca Army Depot was to supply most of the munitions for the Desert Storm war in 1990-91. 

More than 35,000 tons of munitions left the depot to supply American troops in that conflict.

The depot site also includes the foundations of old homes, the remnants of a Native American village, and a cemetery with more than 800 graves. Three of the graves contain the remains of Continental soldiers who served in the Revolutionary War. The cemetery site is currently maintained by a private group.

“Certainly, the white deer are the main attraction, but there is history everywhere you turn,” Money said.

Martin, whose company produces equipment for the dairy industry, plans to put up a new factory at the south end of the site. Seneca White Deer Inc. will focus its effort on about 3,000 acres of prime deer habitat, but have access to all of the property Martin purchased.

“I believe the survival of the white deer will depend on the success of these tours,” Martin said. 

“It’s great to have Seneca White Deer on board for the tours. They have an excellent track record and a real commitment to the deer.”

A Superfund site at the facility where nuclear arms were believed to have been stored remains under control of the U.S. Army indefinitely, while some portions of the original depot will likely be converted to small farms for Amish families in the area.

Money said a wildlife education center is also being considered, along with biking tours and other events that will bring tourists to the area. He said the best time to see the white deer is not the typical summer tourist season, since the foliage obscures the animals, but when the leaves are off the trees the deer will be most visible.

“We have to come up with some creative ways to get people off the couch in winter, and we have some very creative folks working on that,” he said.

Money said the deer inside the depot will benefit from the new food plots that have been planted. He added that a helicopter survey 18 months ago indicated there were about 75 white deer on the vast property, down from that high of about 300 white deer more than a decade ago. 

But white fawns have been seen this summer on trail cameras placed around the site, and Money expects the overall deer herd to grow now that more food and good habitat are available. 

Some brown deer were culled by Wounded Warriors hunters last year, and Money said limited periodic hunting is necessary over the long term for a healthy and genetically diverse population.

“This whole project is something that is so important, and we will do our darnedest to make sure everything is done right,” said Money, who has put in 22,000 volunteer hours over the past 19 years working to save the white deer.

“We’re just excited about what this place and the experience of seeing these white deer can offer to the people of America and the world. It will take time and money and a lot of work, but these white deer are well worth the effort.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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