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The C.A.S.H. Courier

ARTICLE from the Winter 2008 Issue

What Will Happen to the White Deer at the Seneca Army Depot?

By Peter Muller

On Thursday, December 13th 2007 in close to white-out snow-storm-conditions, about 100 Seneca (NY) County residents braved the elements and crowded into the small Varick Town Hall. They were joined there by Rita and Joe Sarnicola from nearby Auburn, NY, Anne and Peter Muller from Wildlife Watch, as well as several other animal protection groups. What brought this large group to a small town in New York State on that day?

The answer to that question started about 65 years ago. The US Army needed an ammunitions depot in the area. To establish such a depot, the army seized over10,000 acres of farmland near Seneca Falls by right of eminent domain. During WW II the depot was used to store, maintain and supply ammunition to army units around the world. The exact function of the base after WW II has been subject to much speculation –each speculative guess has been neither confirmed nor denied by the Army. Whatever the use of the base, this much is known with certainty:

The army enclosed the entire area with 24 miles of 12-foot high fencing. A herd of deer was entrapped within that space. White-tailed deer have a recessive gene that can turn their coat white in color instead of brown. In nature, the recessive gene is rare among deer and the chance of a fawn receiving two white-color genes, one from each parent, is even rarer. That is why, although white deer (who are not albinos) have been known to occur — such white deer have always been subject to awe and legends. In cultures around the world – from Celtic to Native American to Asian there have been stories and myths told about white deer.

The herd enclosed in Seneca Depot evidently had more than the normal share of the white-color recessive genes. Since the herd has been inbreeding for over 65 years that trait surfaced. Today there are an estimated 200-300 white colored deer in the herd of about 700 animals. Many of the brown-colored deer also carry the recessive white-color gene. That herd is of great interest to biologists, wildlife watchers, and, unfortunately, hunters.

The Army decided to decommission the depot several years ago and publicly announced that they would turn the property over to Seneca County. Since the property was taken by right of eminent domain from the farmers in Seneca County – it seemed like a fair decision . The county appointed an agency called the “Industrial Development Agency” (or “IDA” for short) whose mission it was to decide what to do with the land about to be acquired by the county from the Army.

One of the first proposals to the IDA came from a local company appropriately named “Sessler Wrecking” which proposed to establish a canned hunt facility at the site. Needless to say, when Wildlife Watch became aware of the proposal, we jumped into the fray.

We succeeded in publishing an op-ed article in the local paper arguing persuasively that establishing a wildlife watching area at the site instead of canned hunt facility is of far greater economic benefit to the community.

The facility was proposed to be in a section of the depot that was entirely within the Town of Varick. We found the town supervisor, Joan Teichner, very receptive to our ideas. Within weeks the Town of Varick had passed a zoning change creating a special “eco-zone” in the area where the Army depot had been sited in which only limited uses were permitted – canned hunt facilities were not among the permitted uses. The town, additionally, took measures that assured the town planning board would be the final arbiter reviewing the environmental impacts of the Sessler Wrecking proposal should it go forward. The IDA decided to have a public hearing to see how the community felt about the Sessler Wrecking proposal.

That gets us back to our question: Why were all these assorted folks getting together in a small town-hall, in the middle of NYS, during a blizzard?

They came to express their strong disapproval of the Industrial Development Association’s (IDA) consideration of the project proposed by Sessler Wrecking Company.

Twenty-four out of twenty-five speakers disapproved of the proposed project by Sessler Wrecking to turn the Seneca Depot into a canned hunt facility.

Many speakers agreed that the area would be best used as an eco-tourism preserve, which would serve the larger community, the environment, and preserve the white deer herd for future generations. This area which is the home of a unique herd of white deer would be a tourist magnet for Seneca County. The entire community will benefit from making this attraction accessible to wildlife watchers who would come from around the world. In contrast, making the area a canned hunt facility is a short-term exploitation and destruction of a natural treasure that belongs to all of the people.

When Pete and Anne Muller returned the week after the meeting for the County presentation, we saw the headline in the Finger Lakes Times. (Just had to take a photo of it.)

At the end of the session, Varick Town Supervisor, Joan Teichner, asked all of the attendees who disagreed with the Sessler Wrecking proposal to stand up– only one person remained seated.

After much public outcry against the canned hunting, the Sessler Wrecking proposal was “tabled” by the IDA. Peter Muller of Wildlife Watch had been invited by then Varick Town Supervisor, Joan Teichner, to do a presentation about Wildlife Watching following the public hearing. A week later, Peter was invited to do a presentation to the County Board of Supervisors concerning establishing a wildlife watching area. Wildlife Watch is now working with a group of local citizens and other organizations to come up with a business plan and proposal to make that a reality

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