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Wisconsin’s White and Albino Deer

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I happen to live close to an area or “pocket” in Sauk County, Wisconsin where white or albino deer have lived and thrived for decades. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has had regulations where it has been illegal to hunt these animals since 1940. The only exception was the CWD or chronic wasting disease zones where starting in 2008, shooting of these animals was allowed. But, this was all changed for the coming 2014 season where protection has been given for all white and albino deer including even those in the CWD zones.

Every spring Wisconsin has its Wisconsin Conservation Congress Hearings. There are meetings in every county to discuss, comment, and provide input on proposed changes in rules for fishing and wildlife, Conservation Congress advisory questions, and submit resolutions for rule changes that they’d like to see in the future. This year, the annual spring deer herd status meeting was held in conjunction with the annual Spring Wildlife Hearings. The deer herd status meetings give hunters and interested people an early opportunity to discuss the current status of the deer herd and ask other deer management questions. Deer biologists also presented information on new rules and regulations that were recently adopted. The meetings were held in all 72 counties on Monday, April 14th with over 7,000 people attending which I consider low considering the large number of hunters and fishermen that live in Wisconsin and purchase hunting and fishing licenses.

There is a group of local residents that are trying to protect white and albino deer in the state and especially the group of deer in Sauk and Vilas Counties. There are other areas where white or albino deer are present, but these are two of the best known locations. There was a question on the ballot (# 35) at the Spring Hearings that asked whether or not the state of Wisconsin should “legalize the harvest of white and albino deer statewide.” The vote tally was 1915 yes votes and 3939 voting no to harvesting these deer. There also was another question (# 40) which asked whether white deer should be protected in CWD zones? The vote was different on this question with 2665 people voting yes for a harvest and 2963 people voting no for protection in CWD zones. The overall vote to harvesting white or albino deer on question # 35 was more than 2 to 1 against statewide harvest which I personally agree with. In January of this year, the Natural Resources Board voted to reinstate the protection of white and albino deer in CWD zones. So, why bring this question up again?

The white and albino deer have been in the public eye in recent times, but they are extremely rare with an estimation of 1 in 20,000 deer and if you take the population of 1.5 million deer in Wisconsin that would mean that there are only 75-90 white or albino deer in the entire state. That’s very rare and this is one reason that I believe they should be protected with zero harvest.

The difference between white and albino deer is that white deer refers to deer with just white coats, while the albino deer refers to deer that also possess pink eyes and noses which is caused by the total lack of pigmentation which allows blood vessels to show through the eye covering and skin. The terms “white deer” and “albino deer” are often considered the same and often confused. There also is considerable variation between the two deer types and true albinos can have green or blue eyes too.

The deer’s coat color is also determined by many different genes which control pigments, enzymes, and the hormones that affect color. The genetics for color are far from being simple. To further confuse the picture, there are “piebald deer” that are partially white and legal to hunt in Wisconsin. The term “piebald” refers to a “pinto-like” color. In the Wisconsin game regulations, piebald is defined as a deer that has some brown hair and even if it’s only a small patch on any part of the body but the head, hooves, or tarsal glands. In question # 35, it says that “white, albino, or piebald deer have a recessive genetic mutation…” The word “recessive” is often misunderstood. Recessive genes are not usually expressed and are not harmful or defective. The term “mutation” is misleading, since white deer are not freaks of nature, but the result of genes that prevent them from producing the pigment melanin. They are normal in every other way.

Survey question # 35 continues that “white and albino deer often have other recessive traits and physical problems such as poor eyesight in albinos.” The poor eyesight of pure albinos with pink eyes is true because of the involvement of pigments in the retina or back of the eye, but this doesn’t apply to most of the Wisconsin white deer population-almost all which have normal brown, or blue or greenish eyes.

Jeff Richter, photographer and co-author of White Deer: Ghosts of the Forest, has seen 40-50 different albino deer and watched them over 15 years, with thousands of viewing hours, and claims that he has “never noticed white deer to be impaired in any way.” Others go on to say that the albino deer, other than their color difference, are in every way the same as regular colored deer and their health is not compromised by the recessive gene.

There have never been any scientific studies on white deer because the DNR emphasis has always been on the harvestable deer in the greater herd with no time to study the white deer.

The white deer are not social outcasts and live with the other deer peacefully. They do not harm the herd and do not need to be culled. The biggest question and most important is whether or not these deer survive predators, deep snow, cold temperatures, limited food, diseases, and still survive? The answer is unequivocal “YES”!

So, to me the beauty, rarity, and economic value make these magnificent creatures worthy of being protected and not hunted. There are over a million other deer that hunters may harvest while protecting these Phantoms of Sauk County!  


Check out; White Deer: Ghosts of the Forest by Jeff Richter and John Bates.

The Mike and Marsha Crowley website.

Photos by Mike Richard, who I’d like to thank for his wonderful pictures, Amy Sprecher for her help, and MaLenna Smith for many of these facts and much of the research which made this article possible.




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