The following article was written by NYSOWA member, Leo Maloney, and was originally published in the Oneida Daily Dispatch.
The tour bus drove slowly down the old military road as the tour guide described the displacement of farmers to create the military base known as the Seneca Army Depot. Suddenly someone cried out, “there’s some.” All eyes turned toward that side of the bus as the driver stopped so we could get a better of several white deer lying nearby in the buckthorn brush. Throughout the morning this scene was repeated many times as we viewed approximately 20 white deer and an equal number of brown colored ones.
During the two hours of touring the grounds of Deer Haven Park we were treated to other scenes of wildlife including wild turkeys in full strut, bald eagles on the nest, turkey vultures, and many songbirds. Equally fascinating were the sights and the explanation of the military history of the area. The rare white deer are the stars of the show but the experience is packed with other wildlife, information on habitat and wildlife management, and a firsthand exploration of the military facilities, especially the ammunition bunkers popularly known as “igloos.”
This occasion was in early April when a group of outdoor writers, members of the NYS Outdoorsmen Hall of Fame, and other friends of the Seneca white deer had a chance to experience the Seneca White Deer Tours, check out the new Welcome Center on Rt. 96A, and gather information from Dennis Money, president of Seneca White Deer, Inc. Since last November for the first time in over 70 years the general public has he chance to see what was behind the fences and learn some of the mysteries of the Seneca Army Depot.
The central attraction for the tours is the famous white deer herd within the fences of the former Depot. The white deer found there are a natural variation of the white-tailed deer, which usually have brown coloring. The Seneca White Deer are leucitic, meaning they lack all pigmentation in the hair, but have the normal brown-colored eyes. This is a recessive gene, and they are not albinos. Many of the brown colored deer on the enclosure also contain the white gene. The Seneca White Deer interbreed freely with the brown deer in the former Depot and share the habitat equally. The white deer on the former Depot are recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest herd of white, white-tailed deer.
The Seneca Army Depot was built in 1941 by the Army in anticipation of World War II. It was a major weapons storage facility, including nuclear weapons within the “Q Sector,” for nearly 60 years and closed in 2000. Ownership of the 10,500 acre facility then passed to the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency. The fate of the Seneca white deer herd was in serious doubt because if the fence came down the white deer would become virtually extinct because of interbreeding with dominant brown gene deer and especially vulnerable to predators.
Dennis Money and a group of six other volunteers formed Seneca White Deer, Inc. and campaigned tirelessly against the odds to save the deer and argued that this rare herd could be a tourist attraction as well as a natural phenomenon worth saving. Things improved in 2016 when Seneca IDA agreed to sell about 7,000 acres of the property to Earl Martin of Seneca Iron Works in 2016. Martin established Deer Haven Park on about 3,000 acres of his holdings and has contracted with Seneca White Deer, Inc. in 2017 to conduct tours of the facility for the public.
Earl Martin has taken many steps to protect the white deer and started by building a new 10 foot high fence around the 3,000 acres. He has been clearing much of the invasive species such as buckthorn or Russian olive and planting food plots with clover or cool grasses and winter food such as turnips. The herd had declined drastically in recent years due to starvation in severely cold winters. It is a unique ecological system and an important educational example in habitat management.
Many donations, including a very generous donation from John and Josephine Ingle the owners of Heron Hill Winery, made the Welcome Center possible. Starting in November 1917 tours on weekends have been offered on a year-round basis.
It is important to remember that this is not a deer farm, or “petting zoo.” The number of deer that you will see can vary, especially during the summer months when there is vegetation or foliage on the trees. Other wildlife includes several osprey nests, coyotes, beavers, small mammals, and birds. Audubon has classified the area an Important Birding Area because over 100 species of birds can be found there. Eagles have been using the same nest successfully for over 10 years.
Military history, including the building of the 519 ammunition storage bunkers, the use of the facility, etc. is extremely interesting. For example, every artillery shell launched on Iraq during the first Gulf War came from Seneca Army Depot. During the tour the bus will stop so visitors can step inside and learn more about structures such as the igloos, bomb shelters, etc. There is much more to describe than this space allows. The best way is to see it for yourself.
Currently the tours are being offered on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday but there are plans to expand the days during the summer season. You can find more information on tours, times, etc. as well as make reservations on the website www.senecawhitedeer.org. You can also call 315-759-8220 for information. Besides bus tours, they will be offering hiking, biking, photography, and private tours. Tours leave from the Welcome Center at 5537 Route 96A, Romulus, NY. The area is easily reached by taking Route 5 & 20 to either Geneva or Waterloo and then heading south about 9 miles on Route 96A.
It is also a beautiful area to visit situated along the eastern shore of Seneca Lake. There is much to do in the area, including camping, fishing, wineries, craft shops, etc. so you can easily spend a day or a vacation in the region.
The former army depot and the Seneca White Deer Tours are a great combination of nature viewing, education, and social and military history. It is also a great testament to a small group of people who had a vision and the will to see it through despite the odds and adversity.