HILLSBORO, N.D.-When Aaron McWilliams first moved from Louisiana to Hillsboro about seven years ago, he found a pleasant surprise at Woodland Park: a fenced-in quarter acre of land that housed about eight whitetail deer.

His father talked of raising whitetail deer, so the opportunity of having deer to visit so close to his new home became a calming part of his life.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

"I would sit beside the deer for a couple of hours and work on my laptop and do some drawings," he said.

The deer shelter that has been at the park since the late 1970s soon will not exist. Because of North Dakota and federal regulations, the Hillsboro Park Board would either have to update the fence or euthanize the deer.

Costs to be in compliance with the regulations and lack of other resources have prompted the Park Board to opt for the latter. The deer will be euthanized by the end of the year.

"To see that go is certainly sad," McWilliams said. "If there is a path forward, if there is a way to preserve that in the community, I would love to see that happen. I think it is a nice draw for the community and something unique we have in the park that certainly adds a lot of value."

No record of disease testing

Casey Anderson, assistant chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's wildlife division is familiar with the deer in Hillsboro. Regulations have been put in place to prevent the spread of diseases, such as chronic wasting disease, a neurological disease that causes emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death in deer, elk and moose. The disease doesn't pose a risk to humans, and domestic livestock, such as cattle, appear to be resistant to the infection, according to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, but it is unknown how it spreads.

A chain-link fence surrounding the deer is about 6 feet tall, but regulations would require the Park Board to build two fences-one 8 feet and another 4 feet-to contain the deer. That could cost the Park Board $25,000 or more.

"We had a lot of discussions and talked about that they need to be up to regulation to maintain that facility, no different than a zoo maintaining lions or a zoo having deer," Anderson said.

The deer have no history of being tested for CWD, which entails testing the brainstem from multiple dead deer from a herd over a period of time to develop a history of health, Anderson said. This usually happens after natural death or culling.

"There is no record that this population in this fence is clean or not, as far as diseases go," he said. "Typically, no zoo or no other rancher who has a clean herd of deer wants to risk the potential of their whole deer herd becoming infected with something."

The deer have escaped the fenced area along the Goose River when it has flooded, Anderson said.

Caretakers needed

It's not just the cost of building a fence that was considered, Anderson and McWilliams said. Someone needs to look after the deer, which includes making sure they have water and food, cleaning the facility and making sure the deer are healthy.

Edwin Olsen of Hillsboro has been taking care of the deer for 28 years, going to the park almost every day to feed and water the animals.

McWilliams offered to take care of the deer in Olsen's place. He also has been searching for ways to save the deer by calling other places to see if they are interested in taking care of the deer.

"If there was chance that we could keep the deer in the park and I could be part of keeping something a part of the community ... then I would be more than happy to do that," McWilliams said. "I certainly recognize that it would have to be more than just me."

He also noted liability for volunteers could become an issue.

Park Board member Cody Harstad expressed concern about finding volunteers to care for the deer in a Hillsboro Banner article, though he commended McWilliams for his offer.

The Park Board expressed its gratitude to Olsen, with board member Ray Weber telling the Banner the caretaker treated the deer like family.

"You'll never find anyone who will take better care of those deer than Ed did," Weber said in the Banner. "He treated them like his kids."

The Herald was unable to contact Weber or Harstad for this story. A message for Olsen was not returned Friday.

'So many hurdles'

McWilliams understood those concerns and the board's decision to euthanize the deer, which he called a staple of the community. McWilliams also said the people he has talked to about the deer shelter are sad to see it go but understand the Park Board's choice.

He said he feels the regulations lack common sense, and as a recently elected state representative to District 20, he would like to revisit those regulations and possibly change them.

"From the Park Board's perspective, they have been lucky they have been grandfathered in so many times, but now there are so many hurdles ... they have to overcome to try and keep the deer," he said. "Their hands are tied. No one wants to get rid of the deer. They certainly don't want to see them euthanized."

The decision rested with the Park Board, Anderson said, adding the deer won't be wasted but instead will be harvested for meat. The deer then will be tested for disease.

"Anyone who raises deer would have to have those fences to that regulation level," he said. "If they've decided not to do that, that's the way we have to move forward."