How to See the Seneca White Deer in the Finger Lakes
by Chris Clemens
In 1941, the United States government took control of a swath of land in the Finger Lakes right between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. As the property would soon house one of the largest collections of ammunition in the country, a secure border fence was installed. That fence would ensure that no human trespassers would could walk off with a tank, but it also had an unexpected effect on wildlife control.
A whopping eight years later, the first white deer was seen on the Seneca Army Depot. When the news made it to Colonel Franklin Kemble, he immediately gave orders to protect any white deer that might be seen on the property. As science would have it, the combination of Kemble’s order and that secure perimeter would go on to be the perfect formula for creating what is now the world’s largest white deer population.
And you can go see them!!!
The deer are not albino, as one might guess, but rather they are “leucistic“. These deer carry a recessive gene that means their pigmentation is lacking color. Because it’s a recessive gene, a white deer mating with a typical-looking white-tailed brown deer is likely to produce another brown offspring. But, when two white deer mate, the chances of the offspring also being white go up exponentially.
(Remember 8th grade Biology class? Yeah, me neither.)
The fenced in Depot property may have had only a couple white deer back in 1949, but with orders to be protected from humans, and a fence holding off natural predators, the population grew. It’s nearly impossible to know the exact number of deer on the property now, but current estimates put the total population at around 200, with about 75 of them being white deer.
And, that’s part of the reason the property has remained protected even after the Army removed its very last bullet casing in the 1990’s.
Seneca Army Depot
The location of the depot was very much on purpose. The land was far enough from the ocean that it couldn’t easily be reached by missiles during World War II. It was situated far enough from “big cities” like Rochester and Syracuse, but also not so remote that it was reasonably accessible for shipping via railroad. Further more, the geologic conditions were ideal as the shale bedrock was capable of absorbing any kind of potential explosion.
There over 100 “igloos” on the property that were used for storage of various supplies and munitions. According to some, a few of those igloos were directly involved in the storage of radioactive material. According to those claims, that material was involved in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “Manhattan Project”–the early stages of research that would later develop into the Atomic Bomb.
According to some others, that never happened.
The Seneca Army Depot’s history is long and deep, and I suspect that some of it will never truly be known. But, luckily, there is plenty of reading material to keep an amateur historian like myself busy for a bit. If you’re not a reader and you’re interested to know more, here’s an hour long documentary by the Seneca County Historian Walter Gable you can check out!
This isn’t intended so much to be a post about the Seneca Army Depot itself, but discussing the Seneca White Deer is nearly impossible without at least giving it a mention. The depot’s existence is entirely responsible for the whole reason you landed on this article!
So, how can you get on the property to see the deer yourself?
Seneca White Deer Tours
For years now, passersby on Route 96a can occasionally catch a glimpse of the Seneca White Deer while driving the roadway. In fact, that’s how the two deer seen in the featured image of this post were photographed. A few times over the years, groups have led special tours inside the fence, and the tours have always been a huge success.
That led organizers of the Seneca White Deer tour group to take charge of an operation that would allow the public an up close encounter with one of the most unique experiences on the planet. Starting in the fall of 2017, the group has been leading 90-minute guided bus tours through a partitioned section of the old Seneca Army Depot. For $30 per ticket, the public now has regular access to viewing the Seneca White Deer in their natural habitat.
Seneca White Deer Viewing Tips
- Deer don’t love the heat, so in the summer months, you’ll want to book a tour in the morning or the later evening when the deer are more active
- While the white fur of the deer will stand out against the brown and green colors of the wooded areas, right now before the leaves come out is a good time to be able to spot them through brush
- A zoom camera lens will be super helpful for photos, but binoculars will be a huge help
To book a tour, you can visit their website linked above, or go directly to their calendar of tours right here.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens
April 17, 2018 @ 10:02 pm
Thanks for this post. All of the dear are beautiful. The documentary by the historian Walter Gable was very interesting. I had heard of the Seneca Army Depot, but I didn’t know anything about it. I can’t imagine the emotions of the families who gave up their land when the depot was created. This is an important part of New York State history.
April 18, 2018 @ 1:28 am
Thank you, Chris, it was nice to be reminded again of the white deer, something special we have here in NYS. I am going to send this to my brother-in- law in Texas; something tells me that as a sportsman and former hunter he will be intrigued by this.
April 18, 2018 @ 7:33 pm
I’m very familiar with the Seneca White (really leucistic) Deer because my family has a cottage on Cayuga Lake. Leucistic deer are also spotted a lot in another area that I am very familiar with: the Buffalo River in Buffalo, NY. It’s not uncommon to see them in Tifft Nature Preserve and we often see them on the Buffalo River shoreline, especially near Mutual Riverfront Park in the early morning.
April 20, 2018 @ 12:39 pm
Don’t know if it’s a “tall tail” but I’ve heard their white color is from chemicals or something else stored at the Depot. Anyone else hear that?
April 21, 2019 @ 10:47 am
We at White Deer Tours hear the fables about radiation from nuclear weapons and chemicals causing the white coloration in the deer, too. The fact is that these white deer occur naturally and are sometimes seen in the wild. Because they are very easy prey for predators and hunters, they usually don’t last too long in the wild. The protection of the Depot fence and the Army policy of not harming the white deer gave them an advantage the we never see in the wild. It is a really neat side benefit of the Army’s activity in the Finger Lakes.
Vice President, Seneca White Deer, Inc.
Mother's Day In The Finger Lakes On Seneca Lake |
May 29, 2019 @ 7:59 am
[…] never taken the tour, it’s $30 (per person) for an hour-and-half bus ride. For more info, checkout this post from my tour last […]