Genetically Inferior Deer

White deer certainly are beautiful, but unfortunately they carry genetic defects at a higher rate than deer with normal color. Photo by Steve Sorensen

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

Would you shoot a genetically inferior deer? When hunters talk about genetics in whitetail deer, we’re almost always talking about antlers. So maybe your answer is, “Yes, I’ve done it many times? I can never seem to get a buck with good antler genetics.”

Or maybe your answer is, “Yes, we should cull bucks with small antlers so the big ones get to do the breeding.”

If the question is changed to, “Would you shoot an albino or a piebald deer?” we’re asking the same question, but it’s more specific, and the answer is often different. “No! They are unusual so we should let them live.”

“No! White deer are beautiful and majestic creatures—too pretty to shoot.”

Boy, are we confused! Genetics is about much more than antlers.

White deer may be beautiful, but they’re not normal. They often carry defects. An albino deer has a genetically inherited mutation consisting of a group of disorders. The most obvious is an absence of melanin in skin pigment, but albinos can have a wide range of problems including shorter legs, curved spines, and vision deficiencies.

Piebald deer are partly white, but are not “part albino.” Albinism is an all-or-nothing thing. Piebaldism is a different mutation, resulting in white patches in the coat. A piebald may also have hormonal disorders, hearing loss, deformities of the digestive tract, and deformed jaws.
Although mother deer don’t recognize such birth defects, they are still defective traits just as much as a human baby with six toes or a cleft palate. Defects are not normal, and not good.

I recently read a series of Facebook posts discussing whether hunters should shoot white deer. Many people said we shouldn’t, for various reasons. Everyone recognized their beauty, but few realized that whiteness is a birth defect sometimes associated with other birth defects.

Many participants in the discussion believed hunters should not shoot white deer so that more of them could be born. “It’s evolution,” one person said, completely oblivious to the fact that the abnormal traits of a white deer make the deer genetically inferior. If you want to make an evolutionary case regarding white deer, evolution selects against them, not for them. White deer are more likely to be preyed upon because they can’t easily hide from predators, or they die from their other defects. A healthy deer herd has fewer albinos and piebalds, not more.

Most hunters without a background in biology overrate the effect hunting has on genetics in wild deer. In a free-ranging herd, hunters can do virtually nothing to influence antler genetics. Small antlers are not abnormal. Most often they are simply evidence of a young deer, and need not be culled. We are not giving our deer herds a genetic benefit when we shoot normal young deer, but herds are better off when we shoot albinos and piebalds.

Many Native American cultures considered albino animals sacred. Perhaps that’s why a few states still prohibit harvesting albinos and piebalds. You’ll read superstition and folklore about preserving white deer. You’ll hear social and political commentary about why to save them. But you’ll find no scientific study that says we should protect free-ranging white deer. Complicating this issue, many hunters associate shooting white deer with bad luck—but any bad luck is strictly the deer’s!

I’ve seen four wild white deer in my lifetime. One was far out in a field I drove by. The other three were all in the same year, in different places—an albino fawn while I was hunting woodchucks, a young piebald buck during bear season, and a piebald doe in bucks-only season.

I’ll probably take some criticism for my view, but without scientific reasons to spare white deer, if I see a white or a piebald deer I’m shooting it. I suggest you do the same.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, writing about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. Contact him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com, and read more of his thoughts about hunting at www.jamestowngazette.com.