By Bud Cole
The former army depot about 10 miles southwest of Seneca Falls, New York is home to the world’s largest white deer herd. This unique herd of an estimated 200 to 300 white, white-tailed deer roams freely within the protected property of the former Seneca Army Depot.
The depot was used from World War II through the Gulf War. During a major portion of that time period, referred to as the Cold War, over one million people died under the tyranny of communism. The Depot was very important during that era and later supplied most of the munitions for the Gulf War. The area contains 519 ammunition bunkers as well as many other military building. Future objectives include establishing a Cold War Museum and nature preserve on the property.
A 24-mile long, 6½-foot high security fence, topped with 18 inches of barbed wire was erected in 1941, thus enclosing the depot and the resident white-tailed deer population from the outside world.
The substantial herd of normal brown colored white-tailed deer living in this area went under an unusual transformation. Several white pigmented deer—they are not albinos—were born into the herd and their numbers began to increase.
The Army was aware of this unique situation and introduced a program to protect the white deer while managing the population of normal colored deer through hunting. This hunting harvest was a necessary management technique to keep the herd at a carrying capacity for the depot habitat. Several of the brown deer within the enclosed area carried the recessive gene for white coloration. Through management and time the recessive gene became more dominant leading to the current large white deer herd. Color combinations vary from gray to white. There are also piebald individuals with patches of white and brown fur.
The Native Americans called white deer ghosts of the forest and felt the white deer had magical powers. The Lenni Lenape Tribe had a white deer prophesy. The translation reads, “It has long been predicted 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.” The Native Americans did not hunt the white ghosts.
These white deer as indicated above are not albinos. An albino has pink eyes while the white depot deer have normal brown eyes.
The protection of this unique herd is done through strict maintenance of the fences and hunting harvest quotas which keep the entire herd at a healthy population for the available food sources.
Dennis Money of Seneca White Deer, Inc., along with a group of dedicated volunteers, is trying to protect the herd and the land for the future hoping the group can turn the area into a conservation park. He feels it would be a world treasure that would draw people, as it did my wife and me, to travel to see this unique herd of white deer and to learn about the military history of the area.
According to Money, two white fawns were seen in the early 1950’s and the general at the time was so fascinated by the fawns that he protected them from being hunted by the GI’s. The two fawns grew into the largest white deer herd in the world.
“Because they are unique, we have a situation here that no one else has in the entire world, almost 300 white animals.” He and his group feel that conservation and economic development are not mutually exclusive, but should be able to progress together with both entities profiting from a cooperative effort.
This year marked the second time that the area was available for public tours. The tours were conducted during three successive weekends in late April and early May. The two hour tours sold out quickly. About 2000 curious observers embarked on school buses from the nearby Varick Volunteer Fire Company to the depot land where a guard slid open the somewhat rusty gate allowing the tour groups to enter the one time high security area. Tours left for the depot each hour.
Tour guide, John Van Niel, ably guided our group throughout a good portion of the heavily fenced area. No one was allowed to leave the bus due to security restrictions. We continued along the narrow blacktop roads stopping occasionally to snap pictures of the wildlife or the depot buildings. If you are a military buff you would find Q area very interesting.
Three sets of fences guard the Q area, opened in 1959, where nuclear weapons might have been stored. Although the military has never denied or confirmed what was stockpiled in the depot, telltale evidence such as tall light poles with bullet proof lenses and motion detectors lead one to wonder what was so valuable to have needed triple the security when compared to a single fence surrounding the rest of the 11,000 acre tract.
Former civilian workers who have taken the tour tell about the MP’s who patrolled Q area with machine guns 24/7 and the electrified 4800 volt fence. And what about Building 803? It is not actually a building, but a green painted solid concrete structure that sits on top of four subterranean vaults that records show housed the detonators for the first generation of atomic weapons. Fake windows and doors were fashioned to fool the Soviet spy network.
A location where eight remaining buildings once stored small arms has recently been designated as a conservation area. Seneca White Deer, Inc. would like to see the buildings refurbished into a nature center, tour offices, a gift shop and a Cold War Museum. Perhaps a wine tasting room could also be housed in the buildings. Wineries and their wines are one of the biggest tour attractions in this area between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. Many of the wineries provide lodging, tastings and entertainment.
There would be no white deer herd without the fence. Some local people would like to see the fence removed to allow development to move in while other residents want it returned back to farmland. About 150 families were displaced by eminent domain when the depot was built.
But there is a 60 acre pond and valuable wetlands, not to mention the many foxes, beavers, coyotes, wild turkeys, great horned owls, bald eagles and ospreys within the area.
There are an additional 600 or so “brown deer”—a new term I picked up during the tour. We don’t normally refer to white-tails as brown deer, but this is not a normal situation. The varied habitat and unique deer herd within the fenced area provide an ideal location for a nature preserve.
So the question remains. Can the deer herd and development of the former depot property coexist without damage to the deer and the habitat? If you would like to see this area preserved as a future Conservation Park and a Cold War Museum rather than converted totally to residential and commercial development, please call 585-394-1287, or go to www.senecawhitedeer.com for more information.