The relatively high numbers -- reportedly 200 white deer that are part of a larger deer population of 800 -- are apparently the result of the depot land being surrounded by a 24-mile-long fence during the 1940s. The original population had a small group of white deer and their numbers have increased over the decades.
From the website for the Seneca White Deer org:
The white deer found at Seneca Army Depot are a natural variation of the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which normally 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 appear to share the habitat equally. Some of the 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 normal (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.
There's been some tension over the last decade about what should be done with the depot. Seneca County officials have been looking at ways to possibly used the land for development, while preservationists have promoted the land -- and the deer -- as a possible park and tourist attraction. The TU's Brian Nearing had an article over the weekend about the latest state of the situation, including an attempt by preservationists to get the state involved. [NYT 2004] [TU]
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