Travel north on Route 96 from the city of Ithaca, in the heart of the Finger Lakes region of New York, and you'll soon speed past about two miles of unremarkable chain link fence. If you're in the know, you'll slow down and start scanning beyond that fence for something truly remarkable: pure white creatures, standing in tall grass or peeking through the edges of the forest. If you're lucky, one will even race along the fence like some ghostly, streaking apparition.
Welcome to Seneca, New York, home to the world's largest herd of pure white deer.
White deer of Seneca Lake, as captured through the former depot's chain link fence. (Photo: Dennis Money/Seneca White Deer, Inc.)
As you might expect, white deer in the wild are extremely rare. Deer depend heavily on their coats to match the surrounding foliage to avoid predators. A pure white coat might as well come with a big red bulls-eye. The world's largest herd of white deer owe their existence not to Mother Nature but to the appreciation of their beauty by a military commander.
Back in 1941, a 24-mile chain link fence was erected to form the grounds of the then-new 10,000 acre Seneca Army Depot. The site, a munitions storage and disposal facility, at one point held the largest stockpile of Army nuclear weapons in the country.
When that fence went up, it also captured a herd of deer, of which a few carried a recessive gene for all-white coats. The depot's military commander was so taken by the beauty of the white deer that he forbade any hunters on the base from shooting them. As a result of inbreeding, as well as the fence keeping predators at bay, the population of white deer soared from only a handful to more than 300.
An overview of the former 10,000 acre Seneca Army Base, home to the world's largest herd of white deer. (Photo: Seneca White Deer, Inc./Facebook)
Ever since the depot shuttered in 2000, discussions on the fate of the white deer have been on-going. Unsuccessful attempts to privately sell the land have kept the massive herd safe from disturbance. Earlier this year, however, the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency decided to take the 7,000-acre property to public bid. As the group has no plans to maintain the chain link fence after the sale, the white deer may easily scatter and, like the ghosts they're compared to, eventually vanish.
"They're a huge tourist attraction," Lisette Wilson, who runs a farm store and bakery with her husband across the highway from the depot fence, told the Associated Press. "People are astonished. It's quite the spectacle for them."
With public bids now being accepted, efforts are underway to help preserve at least some of the habitat roamed by the white deer. One non-profit, Seneca White Deer, Inc., has plans to buy up at least half the acreage and create tours featuring both the ruins of the military base and its ghostly residents.
The white deer within the former military depot range from 200-300 in population. (Photo: Seneca White Deer, Inc./Facebook)
"This could be like the sexy image to get people to come out to the wild, out to the outdoors to learn about the beauty of wildlife," Dennis Money, president of Seneca White Deer, Inc., told CNY Central. "This could be an economic engine for the local area, southern part of Seneca County, as well as, the Finger Lakes."
According to the SWD website, the non-profit would create a world-class ecotourism facility with a visitor center, bus tours, walking tours, birding sites with blinds, hiking trails, horse riding trails, cross country skiing trails, camping, scouting, environmental education programs, research facilities, military history exhibits and more.
A bus tour of the former depot earlier this week for those interested in purchasing the property attracted nearly 75 people. According to Dennis Money, the Seneca IDA is expecting anywhere from 8 to 10 bids. A bid earlier this year from one Seneca Farmer of $1.5 million, which included plans to protect the white deer herd for tourism, was rejected.
"This is a huge opportunity for us," Money added. "The IDA has stated that the highest monetary offer will not necessarily win, but the offer that does the most for the local economy will. This means that a world-class ecotourism facility, such as we have proposed, has a real chance."
The deadline for submitting a bid on the land is Feb. 29.