January 01, 2017

Anyone who is fortunate enough to see one of Marquette’s growing number of albino whitetails can thank recently retired DNR veterinarian Dr. Steve Schmitt for their presence. After a long career with the DNR spanning more than 30 years, Schmitt retired in at the end of May of 2016. The successful transplant of moose from Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park to the UP is one of the many high points in his career that Schmitt is known for.

Steve darted all of the moose that were trucked to the UP from a helicopter with a tranquilizer gun. His involvement with albino deer in the UP is something few people know about. He used a tranquilizer gun to dart a wild albino buck in Delta County that carried the genetics that all of the white deer in Marquette originated from. Neither Schmitt nor anyone else knew what was going to happen as a result of capture of the albino buck he darted in April of 1982, but we do know now and here’s the story.

The rare albino whitetail showed up in a deer yard east of Rapid River during the winter of 1981-1982 and was regularly seen along old US 2. It wasn’t long before local residents started feeding the white deer. The albino was visible so often along the paved road during the course of the winter that many people who were aware of its presence became concerned about its welfare.

They were concerned that a poacher might kill the deer or it could be struck by a passing vehicle. A petition was started, requesting that the DNR capture the albino deer, so it could be put into captivity where it would be “safe.” The petition was signed by hundreds of residents of Rapid River, Escanaba and Bark River.

Twin albino bucks born to a normally colored doe that was released from the deer pen at Presque Isle Park. These twin albino bucks dispersed from the park and spread their genes elsewhere in the city. photo by Richard P. Smith.

In response to the petition, the DNR decided to do what the public wanted. Since no tranquilizer guns were available in the UP at the time, Steve Schmitt brought one with him from Lansing and flew into Escanaba on April 15, 1982. Schmitt simply waited in a truck, with the tranquilizer gun at the ready, where the albino deer was regularly seen. When it showed up, he had to do some maneuvering, but he eventually darted it about 2:30 p.m.

The sedated albino was then transported to a deer pen that was present at the time at Marquette’s Presque Isle Park. Neither the albino deer nor the whitetails that already occupied the enclosure were as pleased about the plan as some Delta County residents were. As soon as the albino was able to walk in its new home, it repeatedly bumped against the fence of the enclosure, looking for a way out. The formerly free ranging whitetail didn’t appear to like captivity.

The resident deer of the pen had never seen a white whitetail before. Initially, they were scared of the strange-looking deer, running from it when it approached them. Before long, some of the resident deer decided to try to get rid of what they considered a potential threat, and attacked the albino. If park caretaker Bucky O’Neil had not intervened, the resident deer probably would have killed the albino.

O’Neil constructed a smaller enclosure for the albino inside the larger pen to protect the white deer from the others. After allowing the resident deer to get used to the newcomer for a period of months, the albino was eventually accepted as part of the captive herd. After several years, the albino became the dominant buck in the enclosure and he bred a number of does.

Several albino fawns were born in captivity, but only one of them survived, a doe. The albino buck from Delta County lived to be 7 ½ years old in captivity. When he reached that age he was seriously injured in a fight with a younger buck and was euthanized.

To reduce overcrowding in the deer enclosure during May of 1992, 14 of the captive deer were released in the park. One of the normally colored does gave birth to twin albino bucks that year. The birth of a single albino fawn that survives is rare. It is rarer still for twin albinos to survive and the odds of both twins being bucks are even slimmer.

I was fortunate enough to document the lives of those albino bucks. One of the white whitetails grew 4-point antlers for his first set and his brother had 5 points. As yearlings, both bucks dispersed from Presque Isle to the west. The 5-point disappeared during the fall of 1993, but his brother remained and grew a beautiful set of 9-point antlers as a 2-year-old.

The 9-pointer played an active role in the rut. At least one albino doe was born in the Trowbridge Park portion of the city and she has produced a number of albino offspring over the years. The normally colored offspring she has also produced carry genetics favoring albinism, too.

The deer pen at Marquette’s Presque Isle Park was eventually eliminated during the spring of 1994. The fence was removed, allowing the remaining deer, including the albino doe, to roam free in the park. Besides the albino doe, some of the other whitetails that were released had genetics favoring albinism. So it was no surprise when additional albino fawns were born at the park. For a period of years, the odds of seeing an albino whitetail at Presque Isle were extremely high. During those years, it was legal to feed deer at the park. That changed in 2000 when the DNR adopted regulations prohibiting the feeding of deer at the park.

Prior to 2000, Presque Isle Park’s deer population was managed by live-trapping and relocating excess whitetails to various locations outside the city limits by volunteers and city employees. Emphasis was put on moving does and fawns. At the same time the state adopted a feeding ban in the park, they prohibited continuation of the trap and transfer program for managing park deer.

The reason the DNR gave for

ending the trap and transfer

program at the park is possible

disease transmission.

With the relocation of park deer no longer an option, the city of Marquette hired sharpshooters to reduce the park’s deer population during the first months of 2001. A total of 62 deer, many with genetics favoring albinism, were killed then by sharpshooters at Presque Isle. All of the dead deer were tested for disease and none were found.

At least three albinos were part of the park herd when the feeding ban went into effect and sharpshooters were hired to reduce the herd. No albinos were killed by sharpshooters, but that winter proved to be severe. Without supplemental food, those three albinos perished.

Even though the albino genetics were eliminated from Presque Isle Park, whitetails with genetics favoring albinism remained elsewhere in the city limits. At the present time, there is a minimum of a half dozen albino whitetails in the city limits of Marquette and others have dispersed outside the city limits. An albino buck was legally harvested by a hunter several years ago and a number of white fawns are born every year.

I heard reports of another set of twin albinos that was born to an albino doe two years ago, but I never saw them myself. I have seen and photographed albino fawns in the city limits each of the last two years. Unfortunately, the fawn born during 2015 was eventually hit by a vehicle. In spite of some losses, the number of albino whitetails in and around Marquette is slowly growing and the genetics that produced them can be traced back to the button buck that Steve Schmitt darted in Delta County during 1982.

Some of the does that are producing albino offspring are normally colored, but have genetics favoring albinism. The doe that gave birth to albinos each of the last two years looks like a normal whitetail. She had a single albino fawn during 2015. She had twins during 2016, one of which is an albino.

That’s the story behind Marquette’s albino deer.