Albino and piebald deer have been in the news lately, here and in other venues, as they seem to be every fall. And every time I read these reports, I am transported to a pair of encounters that happened to me many years ago.
Both memories are linked to Buffalo County, Wisconsin, which has long dominated the B&C record book as America’s top trophy county. Buffalo is also well-known (though mainly by locals) for its population of albino whitetails, although they were the furthest thing from my mind as I bowhunted my friend’s farm one early November afternoon. The rut was building, and I was on a hardwood ridge connecting a pair of farm fields. Conditions were perfect for rattling, so I grabbed my antlers, cracked them together a few times, and then paused to listen. The unmistakable shuffle of a buck plodding through leaves had me hanging the horns and reaching for my bow as quickly as possible.
I still remember the flashes of white I saw as the buck approached and, this being dairy country, I also remember wondering if some stray, lonely Holstein had heard me and was looking for company. Then the full, stark-white head and neck of the buck emerged from the cover, followed by a broad flank that made me think of a winged Pegasus. The 10-pointer tromped to the edge of bow range, looked around for the fight and–seeing none–flicked his tail and walked on. Though fully protected by state law, that buck would have been safe from me regardless of statute. Maybe you can’t say that I passed him, given the law, but I certainly would have. I’ve been deer hunting for nearly 50 years, and I still count that encounter as one of my most memorable and certainly most mythic.
What About Piebald Deer? Are they as Sacred as True Albinos?
The second encounter occurred on a late-season bowhunt, on a different farm in the same county. While I’d heard rumors of a piebald doe frequenting that property, I had not seen her in almost three seasons of hard hunting. All of that changed on a December afternoon when I trudged through the snow to a stand overlooking an apple orchard. I’d not tagged a deer that fall and vowed to arrow the first legal deer I encountered. My resolve wilted when I spotted a doe heading toward the orchard that seemed to appear and disappear as her splotchy white body slid through trees and brush.
I’ve had several deer track me to my stand over the years, but none as memorable as this one. When the piebald doe encountered my boot track, she buried her nose in the print, popped her head up to look around, then high-stepped to the next track and repeated the inspection. Within minutes she was no more than 10 yards away. The albino buck had been mesmerizing, but this dappled doe was simply beautiful, with cream-white patches on her neck, pure-white markings on her shoulders and flank, and a pear-shaped saddle on her back that reminded me of an Appaloosa horse.
She stood there long enough that I had time to engage in a little argument with myself. On one hand, this was a perfectly legal deer, and I had an empty freezer. And wouldn’t that hide look amazing tanned and tacked on my den wall? On the other hand, well, she was simply the prettiest whitetail I had ever seen in many decades of watching whitetails. When I hung my bow back up on its hook, the doe looked up at me, decided that the shivering blob she’d spotted looked perfectly natural skylit in the tree, wagged her tail, and walked off. Over the years I’ve had several friends tell me I was crazy not to take such a unique trophy, but I have never doubted the correct side won the argument that day. That doe lived for five more seasons before disappearing from that farm and, while it has been years since I hunted there, I like to think she left a string of offspring, some of them never losing their spots come fall.
The Reasons to Pass White Deer Are Not All Touchy-Feely
I tell these tales not only because I like to remember them, but also as proof that I understand people, including many hunters, who argue that white, or even semi-white, deer are special and need our protection. You hear some of these folks pipe up any time an albino whitetail story appears. If a hunter kills a legal white buck, he gets bashed for being some sort of troglodyte, or if an albino is spared, the responsible party is held up as some kind of special savior. It’s all a bit much. Anyone who thinks white deer should be protected in states they are not ought to contact their DNR and start a petition—not troll legal hunters.
The truth is, hunters who argue there’s no biological reason for protect white deer have some solid arguments for making them legal game. The same recessive gene that gives albinos their unusual color also makes them prone to diseases that don’t plague other deer; the buck I passed that long-ago day lived to be 9½ years old, and while it grew a huge rack (another rarity, as many albino bucks have stunted antlers most of their lives), it had to be killed by a warden as it wandered blindly (literally) down the middle of a road in daylight. Albinos are also more susceptible to predation than other deer. Finally, in an age of CWD and other diseases, why should a genetically inferior, more-disease-susceptible member of the species get a pass?
I get all of the these arguments. They are practical and logical. But practicality and logic aren’t everything. There’s beauty and awe to consider. When I reflect on my nearly 50 years of deer hunting, I realize how important it is to me that my sport possesses moments of beauty; if chasing whitetails just boiled down to filling a freezer or filling up an empty spot on the trophy wall, I probably would have become bored long ago. Instead, I return to the woods every fall to witness things that I can’t anywhere else—and often return home with nothing more tangible than a memory. The white deer I’ve encountered are etched in my mind as indelibly as any trophy buck. Even all these years later, I can see those deer in my mind’s eye and feel a sense of awe that distills the reason I go to the woods in the first place.
But there’s more to it than that—maybe surprisingly so for some. Many people think that the reasons for passing up white deer are all sentimental and touchy-feely. In fact, there are solid practical reasons rooted in biology. It’s not easy for a white deer, or a piebald deer for that matter, to produce a similarly-pigmented fawn. Both conditions are the result of a recessive gene, and, more to the point, both parents of a fawn must have that recessive gene to produce a white deer, and even then it’s no guarantee. In other words, the taking of only a handful of albino whitetails from an existing herd could have long-term implications for future survival; a 2001 story in the Minnesota DNR magazine The Volunteer notes that even if a buck with the albino gene successfully mates with a doe of similar genetic makeup, they have only a 1-in-4 chance of producing an albino fawn. The obvious proof of this is the fact that in places where they are protected, you have a decent chance of seeing an albino deer, whereas it’s especially rare outside of those places.
We value things that are rare in nature, whether they are precious metals or trophy bucks. Estimates place albino deer at about 1 in 20,000 or more, or about .005 percent. Less than 2 percent of whitetails are piebald. In other words, they are rare, indeed, and so it makes perfect sense to give them extra value and want to preserve them.
I would never take a fellow hunter to task for shooting an albino or piebald deer in a legal hunting situation. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I saw a pic of a hunter posing in a hero shot with a piebald buck and I honestly thought: How cool. What an awesome trophy for him. But in the two meetings I’ve had with white–or partially-white deer—I barely lifted a finger to grab my bow. They were amazing, mesmerizing experiences and therefore ones I hope my fellow hunters get to enjoy, and the best way to ensure that is not to shoot these deer.