WHAT ARE THE WHITE DEER OF THE FORMER SENECA ARMY DEPOT?
The white deer found at Seneca Army Depot are a natural variation of the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which usually have brown coloring. The Seneca White Deer are leucistic, meaning they lack all pigmentation in the hair, but have the normal brown-colored eyes.
Albino deer, which lack only the pigment melanin, have pink eyes and are extremely rare. The Seneca White Deer interbreed freely with the brown deer in the former Depot and share the habitat equally. Some white bucks show a flattening, or palmation, of the antlers, but are physiologically similar in most other ways.
The genetics of these deer have not been studied extensively, but a recessive gene for lack of pigmentation apparently prevents usual (i.e. brown) coloration of the hair. Management of the white deer within the former Depot increases the proportion of deer exhibiting the trait.
In an unprotected environment, white deer are usually easy prey for predators or hunters. The limited predators and controlled hunting on the former Depot have allowed the white deer to interbreed and increase in numbers for more than 60 years. Other white deer herds exist in protected environments, including white fallow deer in Ireland, but none of those herds are as large as the white, whitetail deer of the Depot.
HISTORY OF THE WHITE DEER
Several dozen wild white-tailed deer were probably caught within the fence that was built to surround the Seneca Army Depot in 1941. Isolated from predators and hunters, the deer population grew quickly. The first white deer, a buck and a fawn, were spotted in the Depot in 1949. After the first white deer siting, protection from the U.S. Army resulted in more white deer and the proportion of white deer gradually increased.
When the total population of deer within the fence grew larger than the limited habitat could support in the mid-1950s, the Army allowed hunting to reduce the size of the deer herd and prevent starvation, but protected the white deer from hunters. The Depot Commander, Colonel Franklin Kemble, Jr. gave orders not to kill the white deer and is responsible for the extensive herd that exists today.
At one time, white deer accounted for almost 200 of the approximately 800 deer within the Depot fence. The population of both white and brown deer appears to have decreased in recent years. The future of the deer, as well as the rest of the wildlife in the former Depot will depend on maintaining Deer Haven Park as a safe refuge and improving the habitat for these beautiful animals.
Native Americans have a long history of respect for white deer which are sometimes referred to as the ‘ghost deer.’ The Lenape Indians have a white deer prophesy. Here is an oral translation of that prophesy.
“It has long been predicted that there would come a time when a white male and female deer would be seen together, and that this would be a sign to the people to come together."
Let’s hope this prophesy rings true.
In 1941, most of the lands of the Depot had been in agriculture, although there were a few pockets of woodlots. The habitat of the Depot was basically a monoculture of fields. Over time however, the US Army and the New York State Conservation Department, now known as the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, began to better undertand the interaction between wildlife and habitat. Thousands of conifers were planted for species diversity, fields were allowed to grow and ditching of the land also promoted the development of wetlands.
The interaction between the US Army and the Conservation Department, especially in understanding deer management, made the research done at the Depot critically important to other states trying to manage their herds of deer. The Depot eventually became known as the birthplace for whitetail deer management in North America.
Today, the Depot represents a tremendous variety of habitats; from mature forests at the south end of the Depot to grasslands in the Q area. This great diversity of habitats, some man made but most due to natural succession, have resulted in a great diversity of wildlife and birds who call the Depot their home.
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