White Deer Issues and Answers


Although an overwhelming majority of the public want to protect the Leland white deer, arguments in favor of allowing hunting to continue need to be addressed.  Here is a list of some of the arguments that have appeared on web and news posts and why they are flawed.

“Allowing hunting of white and albino deer is necessary to control CWD”

Wisconsin DNR management goals for CWD (Chronic Wasting Disease) are to reduce deer populations in management zones and not to eliminate all deer in those areas (http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/cwdplan.html).  Reducing herd size is intended to decrease both contact between individual deer and population pressure that could force deer to migrate out of an area and possibly spread the disease. 

There is some question as to whether even reducing herd density is an effective control measure because CWD and its method of transmission are not completely understood:

“An adaptive strategy for the CWD response is essential because there is still much to learn about CWD epidemiology and the efficacy of CWD control techniques in free-ranging populations.”  (From  Wisconsin’s Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan Summary:  http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/cwdplan.html)

At any rate, a dozen white deer, the extent of the Leland population, and a few other white deer in other areas of Southern Wisconsin, are too few to make an impact on any management plan.  Population control and reduction of the deer herd in the CWD zone can be accomplished without killing any white deer.

“Albinos are defective and need to be removed from the herd”

News sources have introduced some of their articles about the Leland white buck with “the genetically defected deer”–an unfortunate choice of words which effectively dismisses or even demonizes the white deer and gives fuel to the argument that white deer need to be culled from the herd.

Different does NOT mean defective, and even mutant does not mean defective.  Darwin’s whole theory of evolution is based on the idea that mutations, or genetic changes, provide diversity so animals can adapt and change.  Most modern animals, including humans, are the result of thousands of years of genetic changes.  We should not be so quick to judge what is “defective.”

The overwhelming factor in deer survival–any animal’s survival–is fitness.  If albino deer are naturally weak, then individuals shouldn’t be able to survive deep snow, predators, fights with other bucks, and social jockeying.  But they do, and they seem to thrive and get along quite nicely with their brown herdmates.  The original white doe in the Leland area lived 13 years–pretty impressive for an animal that’s supposed to be “defective”!

Even if white genes were undesirable, their ability to “contaminate” a herd is inaccurate:  “…protecting white deer probably won’t cause any real harm to your deer herd.  It’s a very rare trait and the genetic drift in even a small, isolated population is so great that such traits seldom become prolific without selective aggressive breeding.”  (Bob Humphrey, “Ask the Biologist” column, buckmasters.com)

“Recessive genes are inferior”

This idea is often used as a justification for shooting white deer, but is totally inaccurate.  Recessive genes are simply genes that are present in animals and humans but are “covered up” by other genes or not expressed.  Recessive human genes include blonde hair, blue eyes, and left-handedness.  Red hair genes can influence other genes for hair color, but generally behave as recessive genes also.

Interestingly, genetic descriptions of red hair describe it as a mutation of normal hair color:  “Red hair is a recessive genetic trait caused by a series of mutations in the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), a gene located on chromosome 16.”   (http://www.eupedia.com/genetics/origins_of_red_hair.shtmlFortunately, we don’t consider people with these recessive genes abnormal.  If we treated people like deer, they might be in trouble…

An outdoorlife.com reader, “bigshed,” wrote:

“I like all the discussion about the recessive genes being inferior. I have been telling people for years we need to eliminate left-handed people to help improve our species. This also goes for baldness and color blindness. Recessive and dominate genes generally have nothing to do with inferiority as far as survivor ability and hardiness. The terms recessive and dominate only mean whether or not the gene shows itself on the animals appearance to the naked eye (Dominant) or if the gene is present but not expressed (Recessive.)”   From (http://www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/big-buck-zone/2010/05/mysterious-albino-deer-herd)

“White deer are much more apt to be killed by predators”

As far as color, white deer, no doubt about it, stand out like a sore thumb….to humans….and at least on a brown background.  Whether that makes them or other white animals more vulnerable to predators may not be the case.  A study done with owls and shrikes (a small hunting bird) in an enclosure with released brown mice and white mice gave mixed results:  sometimes the birds took more white mice, and sometimes they took more brown mice (from White Deer; Ghosts of the Forest by Jeff Richter and John Bates). 

Most animals do not have the same color perception as humans, and rely more instead on a combination of shape and movement for prey recognition.  In other words, if the prey generally looks and acts like a normal prey item (no matter what its color), it’s a candidate for dinner:

The researchers concluded that visually-oriented predators use a specific hunting search image, because when the voles (meadow mice) were equally visible, the shrikes took the brown voles. The odd coloring of the albinos actually helped protect them in the open from visual hunters like shrikes. Thus, the color of the prey appears to make little difference as long as the prey generally looks and acts like a known prey item.” (from White Deer: Ghosts of the Forest by Jeff Richter and John Bates)

White color does seem to make a difference to certain human hunters, the biggest “predators” most of these deer will ever have to deal with:

“Because of the fascination that the albino deer create, they are more apt to be killed by hunters. Not only because they stand out more due to their white color, but because many hunters see them as a rare trophy.”  (http://www.nyantler-outdoors.com/albino-deer.html)

“The buck that was shot was 5 years old; he would have died soon anyway”

Studies have shown that white-tailed deer can live up to 10 years in the wild and up to 20 years in captivity.  In reality, they seldom live more than 3-5 years because of natural causes, car collisions, and hunting. Hunting is by far the major cause of death for deer in Wisconsin, and the lifespan of deer in heavily hunted areas probably doesn’t exceed 2-3 years at most.

The original white doe in the Leland area was believed to be 13 years old when she died.  Her extended age was no doubt a result of landowner protection.  If the white buck had not been killed this year, he very likely could have lived at least several more years.  That’s several more years for residents and visitors to enjoy watching him, several more years for people to take photographs and videos, and several more years for the buck to pass his white genes on to even more fawns.

For those who think white deer are pretty cool and would prefer to have more around instead of less, the loss of so many bucks has been a huge blow to the white gene pool.  If these deer are all killed off, the chances of more appearing in this one small geographical area are about as high as the proverbial meteor hitting Leland.

“Landowners are already protecting the white deer–they’ll be safe.”

Although many Leland landowners are protecting the white deer, not every place in the area is safe for them.  At least three white deer in the Leland area have been shot and killed in the last five years.  Hoping the deer don’t wander onto the “wrong” property isn’t working! Deer have legs, they jump fences, and they have no sense of property.  In short, they can move…and sometimes they move a lot.

In general, does stay within relatively small areas, while bucks occupy larger territories.  Bucks may stay in a 2-5 mile radius in the summer, but can travel much greater distances during the rut.  Yearling males can disperse up to 25 miles.  There was a study done where bucks were tagged and one was later shot 60 miles away from the tag site–which all means that “safe” today may not mean “safe” tomorrow.

“Piebalds can already be hunted, so what’s the difference?”

(Or when is white not white?

Because the line between what is an albino or white deer and what is not is very blurred, states have had a hard time coming up with legal guidelines for hunting.  Most states that protect albino and white deer do not protect piebalds or partially white deer.  If a deer has any brown on it, even if the area is the size of a half dollar (as was the case with the Leland white buck), the buck is considered legal to hunt.  This is a technical definition, since, for all practical purposes, a deer with so little brown color is essentially “white.”

Another problem with determining what is a “white” deer is that secretions from scent glands on the head can discolor the hair on the forehead.  Rubbing the head and antlers against the ground and saplings during rut can cause more browning in this area.  Tarsal glands on the hind legs can also produce a tan coloring of the inner legs, which is why Wisconsin excludes these areas from the brown color requirement for a piebald.

A Michigan hunter in 2004 shot what he thought was a piebald buck (with a tiny amount of brown), but which wardens subsequently declared to be an albino and illegal kill. The hunter sued numerous people and agencies in an attempt to clear his name and declare his right to shoot the deer. The court cases got so involved, there were even accusations of “doctoring” the mount with shoe polish to make it legal.  The color could have just been natural staining.  The deer was nearly totally white (if not totally white) and it really wasn’t a question for all those who felt a huge loss from the death of the animal–in this case, a very tame and locally fed deer.

“Why should Leland residents have any more say in what happens to the white deer?”

Leland area residents definitely have a more vested interest in the white deer. It is their land that harbors them and their good will that protects them. They are also the ones who see and enjoy the deer on a daily basis–even to the point of knowing individual deer and their history. The white deer that were killed in the Leland area were not shot by local residents. The hunters who shot them did not have the same relationship with the deer and simply viewed them as a special target or trophy.

An estimated 60 million bison were reduced to near extinction in a period of about 50 years in the late 1800s. Everyone who shot bison had a reason: sport, food, hides, destroying the food supply of Native Americans. News stories of the time would have had many arguments supporting a particular reason to hunt bison, but if all of the bison had been killed, none of those reasons would have mattered. It was the efforts of only a few people who protected less than a couple hundred bison that saved the animals from complete extinction, and everyone has benefited since from that effort.

A growing moral dilemma is at what point does one person’s right to hunt and shoot an animal interfere with another person’s right to watch, photograph, and enjoy the living animal.

“If I’d had the chance, I would have shot it, too”

Protecting the white deer is not a hunter/non-hunter issue.  Many area residents who want to protect the white deer are hunters.  However, what a few people do reflects on everyone.

Hunting magazines and outdoor books and websites always advocate a respect for landowners and property.  How many landowners will be as open to allowing hunting on their land if this is how “guest” hunters respect local attitudes and resources?  And the person or persons who shot the white buck knew very well how people felt about the deer–he had been shown pictures at the local bar and told all about it.  People can argue the legality of shooting the deer and personal rights, but the bottom line of the Leland story is that it didn’t make hunters look very good at all.

“It’s just a deer….”

One in 20,000?  So rare most people won’t see a white deer in their entire lifetime?  So beautiful people wait for and watch them for hours.  So unexpected people back their cars up for a second look?  Even hunters are grabbed by their unusual appearance.  There are an estimated 1.5 to 1.8 million other deer in Wisconsin–and unfortunately, all the rest of them are just brown.

Native American tribes considered white deer sacred and ascribed great significance to a sighting. It is unfortunate that in our modern age of science and game management, the white deer is sometimes reduced to a statistic with a hide and antlers.  It shows how varied people’s attitudes can be.  For those who still feel white deer are the same as “any other deer,” read The White Deer Experience” page on this website.

“I think whether you shoot a white deer should be up to the individual hunter”

This is one place where a “live-and-let-live” attitude isn’t going to work. It sounds fair and reasonable in theory, but here’s how it really works (from a South Carolina website hunting forum):

“My father had a midnight black fox squirrel in the swamp behind the house when he was a little boy, he had plenty of chances to claim him, but let him go because he was unusual, two years of watching this squirrel and then he was gone, later found out the fella down the road killed and mounted him.”

“Hey, you can shoot white deer in Minnesota (or whatever state)”

White and albino deer are currently protected in Wisconsin, Illinois (since 1983), Iowa, and Tennessee. Michigan had laws protecting white deer for 20 years prior to a 2008 repeal, which was primarily the result of one person’s litigation and efforts to proclaim his right to hunt the deer.  Minnesota also repealed laws to protect white deer. (They do, however, protect white bear…).

In 2012, Oklahoma repealed a law in effect since 1998 that required a person to get permission from the State Wildlife Director before shooting a white or piebald deer. (The bill was apparently a “compromise” to totally protecting the white deer.) Since permission was always given, the law was not exactly useful, although it did prevent impulsive kills, which is what many white deer shootings are. The law was overturned when a former legislator, unaware of the regulation, shot a white deer (oops) and was fined by a warden (double oops).  Read the full story:  http://blog.newsok.com/outdoors/2012/04/19/hunting-regulation-on-white-deer-repealed/

The bottom line is that laws regarding white deer may have less to do with the deer and more to do with lawmakers. The laws can also change, one way or the other, and more often recently “to the other” (against protection).  It shows how important it is to get legal protection for white deer.

“Shooting the white deer was okay because it was legal”

Legal doesn’t mean ethical.  What is allowed is not always right.  Politics and money often have more to do with the law than ethics does.  As Brandon Yanke says on the Channel 3 News story:  “Shooting the white buck may have been legal, but it wasn’t moral.”

The white buck that was shot in November had often been around people and was relatively tame and trusting. The hunter(s) who shot it had apparently asked the landowner if it was okay, but the ethics ended there.  The deer was shot while trotting past the hunters’ camp in pursuit of a doe. He was at very close range and probably shot at (and killed) by more than one person. To shoot a tame animal at close range is not sport, and to shoot an animal that was known to be valued by so many people was highly unethical.

“Being able to take a deer should be based on sound wildlife management decisions, not emotion”

Wisconsin deer herds are probably the biggest and most studied in the world.  CWD, because of its seriousness, is also getting considerable time and attention.  But as far as white deer…nobody knows too much about them.  Excerpts from an article on white deer in “Our Wisconsin” magazine (February/March 2013 issue) says no studies of white deer have been undertaken.  “The condition of this herd (in Boulder Junction) and its dynamics remain open to speculation because no scientific study has been done.

The article goes on:  “The white deer are interesting, and I’ve seen them through the years,” says Wisconsin DNR deer researcher Keith McCaffery.  “All white deer are protected in Wisconsin (outside CWD zones) for their novelty, and the DNR’s emphasis has been to manage harvestable deer in the greater herd, so that’s why no time has gone into studying them.”

As far as emotion, people don’t hunt for subsistence anymore, even if they eat venison.  They hunt for recreation, tradition, to get outdoors, and because they enjoy it.  Not that hunting is always fun, but photographers have spent as many or more hours in freezing cold to capture a white deer on film.  They both involve a challenge.  They both involve emotion.  People enjoy watching the white deer, and that is just as important.  And the best part of watching white deer instead of shooting them is that they’re around for another day and someone else gets to see them, too. 

“People only want to save these deer because they’re pretty”

White deer are not only “pretty,” they are unique and extremely rare.  As far as beauty, this excerpt from the preamble to the 1973 Endangered Species Act, passed by the U.S. Congress, explains why certain animals and plants need to be protected.  Note that aesthetics, or the appreciation of the beautiful, is considered an important reason, and that being able to watch and enjoy certain plants and animals (recreational) is also an important reason to protect them:

Congress addressed these questions (why save certain plants and animals) in the preamble to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, recognizing that endangered species of fish, wildlife, and plants “are of aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.” In this statement, Congress was summarizing a number of convincing arguments advanced by scientists, conservationists, and others who were greatly concerned by the disappearance of unique creatures.  (From http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080521175619AAyBk7X)

From Aldo Leopold, Wisconsin’s pioneer conservation thinker and author:  “There are some of us that can live without wild things, and some who cannot. ….the opportunity to see geese or wild flowers is a right as inalienable as free speech.

From a “Farside” cartoon by Gary Larson:  “Look, Watkins! A rare example of Nature’s beauty–let’s kill it, and preserve it for future generations.”  (from a reader post, Janesville GazetteXtra, in response to a white deer kill in Jefferson County, Wisconsin)