Mike Richard/Forest and Flight Photography
One of the revered white deer that live in the Leland area. A different white buck from the herd was illegally killed by a hunter on Nov. 25.
Before the snow started to fly, it was easier to imagine how an all-white or albino deer would stand out against the stark and leafless rolling terrain of rural Sauk County, northwest of Madison. White deer can be seen a mile away, which makes them vulnerable to coyotes and hunters — those who don’t know they’re protected animals.
Despite the love residents of the Leland-Plain area have for the wild white deer, a population that may include 25 animals in the area, hunters are believed to have killed five in the past four years.
The most recent one was a 5-year-old, nine-point buck in Bear Valley, just west of Leland, on Nov. 25, during the annual nine-day deer gun season. It was shot by someone from outside the area.
The buck frequented the backyard of Bryan Walsh northwest of Plain. He says he often whistled to the deer, which his 11-year-old daughter named “Whitey.” Walsh says he had hundreds of encounters with the buck, and he watched it put on weight and mass.
“He looked like an elk,” Walsh says. “He was damn near tame. He’d never been shot at.”
Walsh, a 46-year-old truck driver and former hunter, wants to know why it’s not common knowledge that it’s illegal to kill or possess albino or all-white deer, as stated in Statute NR 10.02 and on page 18 of the 2016 Wisconsin Deer Hunting Regulations booklet, which states: “It is illegal to possess albino or all-white deer, which are entirely white except for the hooves, tarsal glands, head and parts of the head.... Albino and white deer may not be harvested.”
Walsh is not alone in prizing the white deer in the area. He and many of his neighbors have signs in their yards that read “Protect the White Deer.” Walsh says he knows one bowhunter who had Whitey in his sights no less than five times and didn’t shoot it.
“We’re all hunters here. We respect wildlife and obey the law. We’re all ethical hunters,” says area resident and wildlife photographer Mike Richard. He helped set up the website protectthewhitedeer.com in 2012 after the last publicized shooting of one.
Residents keep a close eye on their local white deer, so they’re reasonably certain that in addition to the five killed by hunters since 2012, another four died in car accidents, and coyotes have picked off a couple white fawns.
White and albino deer, while uncommon, are the result of reproducible genetic mutations in non-white deer populations. Nevertheless, the few pockets of white deer found in Wisconsin (such as farther north around Boulder Junction and in Buffalo and Wood counties) have engendered protective emotions in hunters and non-hunters alike, keeping them off limits, by personal ethics and the law.
For a time white deer could be culled in counties wherever chronic wasting disease had been detected, including Sauk County, but protection of white deer was reinstated statewide in August 2015. White deer also enjoy protection in neighboring Illinois and Iowa.
While the white buck and the protection it enjoyed was well known to Walsh and his neighbors, he wants to know why hunters “from the big city” and elsewhere don’t know the deer can’t be shot.
“Ignorance is no excuse,” Walsh says. “Why isn’t it common knowledge that the white deer is protected, like a badger, crane or [timber] rattlesnake? Nobody’s out popping them.”
According to the citation issued by a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, David J. Ryan, 48, of Clinton, Wisconsin, “admitted to shooting at, harvesting and tagging the all-white buck deer.”
However, Walsh and others in Sauk County contend it was not David Ryan but a relative of his who actually downed Whitey. Walsh thinks Ryan is taking the fall for another hunter, a Madison businessman who owns property in the area.
During firearm deer season, state law allows one member of a hunting party to kill game for another member. “It happens all the time during deer gun season,” says DNR conservation warden supervisor Mike Green. “You can use one of the other party’s tags.”
Regardless of who shot the deer, David Ryan admitted to the violation, which carries a minimum fine of $303.30 and a maximum forfeiture of $2,152.50. Ryan was cited, and the carcass was confiscated.
“I’m convinced 100 percent that the citation is right, thorough, righteous and the right one,” deputy chief warden Karl Brooks says.
The case is now pending in Sauk County Circuit Court. Calls to Ryan and the relative seeking comment were not returned.