ROMULUS, N.Y. — The world's largest herd of white whitetail deer now have their own sanctuary — and tourists also can find a nest of a mating pair of bald eagles, a dam built by a beaver colony, and a former munitions igloo on the site of the former Seneca Army Depot.
Unlike albinos, the Seneca white deer at Deer Haven Park are a natural variation of brown-colored deer that lack pigmentation in their hair. In 1949, the first white deer were spotted at the depot, which was built in 1941 at the start of World War II to house and dispose of munitions.
Col. Frank Kemble Jr., the base's commander, prohibited killing the white deer that lived with the more common brown deer, and the white-coated herd at one point grew to more than 200. But as the Army’s presence decreased from 1995 when the Pentagon announced the depot's closure to the year 2000 when the military pulled out, predator kills, poaching, habitat degradation and starvation increased.
An aerial census two years ago revealed only about 75 white deer, but that's changing.
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“The white deer are increasing in numbers. We’re looking forward to a very nice fawn crop,’’ said Earl Martin, whose purchase of 7,000 acres of depot land became final earlier this month.
His $900,000 bid for the depot called for a $13 million expansion of his business, Seneca Iron Works; the creation of 200 jobs during the next decade; establishing 20 Amish homesteads; and putting land back on the tax rolls. It also called for leasing 2,800 acres to a nonprofit group called Seneca White Deer Inc., which was formed in 1998 to save the white deer while promoting the economic potential of the depot as a tourist attraction.
“I’ll be candid,’’ said Martin, 39, of Seneca Falls. “I didn’t purchase the depot with the goal of doing a wildlife park. The original bid was that it would be a place to expand our business knowing we’d do something for the white deer.
“But interesting enough, I’ve got a bit of an affinity for the deer now," he said. "They kind of grow on you. Now I’m down at the depot every other night and on weekends and just having an awesome time."
He first saw the deer at age 9 when his family took a ride past Seneca Army Depot to show his grandfather, visiting from Pennsylvania, the mystical white animals that lived inside the 24 miles of fencing around the government installation. His grandfather predicted that someday he would own the depot.
Now the land off New York 96A about 3 miles west of Romulus features a spacious $255,000 welcome center, built entirely with donations that came in from around the world. Seneca White Deer owns it, and that's the starting point of the sanctuary's tours that began on a regular schedule in November.
More than 2,300 people took a tour of Deer Haven Park in the first five months of operations, according to Seneca White Deer.
"This isn’t a petting zoo. These are wild animals,’’ Dennis Money, the organization's president, said as the first white deer was spotted on a recent tour for media and Finger Lakes winery and bed and breakfast owners.
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After learning about the wildlife and military history of the depot from various displays and possibly purchasing a mug or T-shirt, visitors board a 25-passenger tour bus that runs every two hours 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.
The tours are a combination of photo safari and a trip through a military museum frozen in time.
At one time, 100 million pounds of missiles, bombs, bullets and grenades were stored here. So were strategic ores, including pitch blend that contained the uranium used to make the first atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
Pulling up to the entrance gates of the depot’s highly classified “Q’’ area, visitors get a sense of the seriousness of storing nuclear weaponry when the rusted remains of triple, electrified fencing come into view.
“The depot was built in about six months with 100 miles of roadways, 40 miles of railroads and 519 ‘igloos’ or ammunition bunkers,’’ Money said. “When you look at these bunkers, you get impressed by how the men and women of that era were building six or seven of these every day.
Money, 71, of Canandaigua is a retired environmental specialist with Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. He has been involved with some of western New York’s most notable wildlife restoration projects, including river otters and peregrine falcons.
But Seneca Army Depot's white deer didn’t need to be restored. They needed to be saved.
If the depot's fencing had been removed as part of its redevelopment, the rare hoofed animals would have become easy targets for hunters and predators.
Some white deer do escape the perimeter fencing, but Martin's investment has made that more difficult. Before he purchased the land, he leased it and in June 2016 began an aggressive program of habitat restoration.
Working with ecologist Keith Tidball of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Martin’s crews planted 250 acres with soybeans, corn, turnips, radishes and high-protein grasses. They also planted more than 4,000 trees — fruit, conifers, oaks and dogwoods — providing food and cover for deer, wild turkey and songbirds.
They repaired miles of fencing and increased security to help cut back on vandalism and poaching. Coyotes, the depot’s main natural predator, also are being managed through trapping.
“Our goal isn’t to sterilize the whole place," said Martin, who plans to double his habitat work now that he owns the land. "In nature, we know the weaker must die and the strongest must survive. That’s how we get better genes in the wild.’’
On the tour, visitors can exit the bus to explore the beaver dam, an emergency bomb shelter and the site of a former Seneca Indian village that white settlers took over. A cemetery contains soldiers' remains from the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
“As a conservation park, you’ve kind of taken the sword and beaten it into a plow share,’’ said Money, whose army of volunteers have cleared bunkers of overgrowth for viewing. “We think we have something unique that nobody else in the world has here."
Cyclists also can enjoy the paved roads inside the depot, and hikers soon will have more trails to explore. Future ideas call for horse wagon rides, cross-country skiing and perhaps overnight lodging in a storage igloo, something Money likes to call a “bed and bunker.’’
“I loved it,’’ said Jim Doolittle of Frontenac Point Vineyard in Trumansburg, whose wife, Carol, is a Seneca White Deer volunteer. “Guests are always looking for things to do, and you won’t find anything like this anywhere else."
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Witnessing a white deer in the wild is a moving experience, said John Ingle, owner of Heron Hill Winery in Hammondsport.
“Whoever sees the white deer doesn’t forget it,’’ Ingle said. “It’s almost a religious experience. They are so majestic and wonderful to witness."
Follow Leo Roth on Twitter: @leoroth
Deer Haven Park
• What: Guided wildlife and military history bus tours at the former Seneca Army Depot near Romulus, N.Y. Deer Haven Park is home to world's largest herd of white white-tailed deer.
• When: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays to Sundays
• Where: Welcome Center is at 5537 Route 96A, about 10 miles south of Geneva and 3 miles west of Romulus.
• Cost: $30 adults, $27 seniors 65 and older, $15 children 5 to 17, free for children younger than 5. Tours last about 90 minutes.
• Details: Call (315) 759-8220. Go to senecawhitedeer.org