Past Carol Anne's Barber Shop, Ike's Drive-In and the Spar Tree Tavern, and just beyond the local Baptist Bible Church, lives Hiram Wilburn, high on a hill overlooking his 25-acre...
GRANITE FALLS Past Carol Anne’s Barber Shop, Ike’s Drive-In and the Spar Tree Tavern, and just beyond the local Baptist Bible Church, lives Hiram Wilburn, high on a hill overlooking his 25-acre homestead.
State Fish and Wildlife Department officers know it as “Hiram’s compound.”
It is here, amid nearly 70 rusting car carcasses, a fish pond filled with Russian lifeboats, and a mist-covered pasture dotted with horses, cows and defunct farm equipment, that Wilburn has raised sika deer for nearly 15 years.
That is, until today.
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After a three-year battle with wildlife officers and the state, the wiry 82-year-old has agreed to destroy his few remaining sika deer, an elklike species from Japan that the state considers “deleterious exotic wildlife” and harmful to native deer and elk. Wilburn has until noon today to destroy the animals he raised as livestock, or wildlife officers will come and finish the job.
His case had been scheduled to go to trial earlier this month, after multiple continuances, a $2 million countersuit by Wilburn, and several hundred hours of officer time.
But Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Diane Nipert surprised wildlife officials by getting Wilburn to agree to the deal avoiding prosecution on charges of unlawful operation of a game farm and unlawfully releasing deleterious exotic wildlife, a felony.
“It’s a waste of time and effort for an individual to try to take action against the government,” Wilburn said over the weekend as he surveyed his land.
From a high perch, he used an airgun to point out where he kept the deer, less than a handful of which remain from the herd’s height of 48 eight years ago. He bought two does and a buck at a game farm in Texas in 1989, and boasts about his deer’s “prolific breeding.” In a two-week period about five years ago, he sold 28. And, when hunters at a nearby park failed to nail their prey, he put up signs inviting them, “If you didn’t get your deer, stop by Wilburn’s. $5 a pound.”
Wilburn rebuffed wildlife officers’ past efforts to help him comply with regulations because he thought it was none of the state’s business. A World War II veteran who suffered hearing loss from testing Boeing engines, he often mentions “the eighth wonder of the world, the stupidity of the U.S. taxpayer,” who he thinks accepts onerous regulations that serve only to employ more and more public servants. All he wanted with the deer, he says, is to supplement his $2,000-a-month retirement income in order to pay his county property-tax bill of more than $5,000 a year.
Along with mute swans, mongoose, wild boars and reindeer, sika deer were classified as deleterious exotic wildlife in 1992, and it became illegal to have them, except for scientific research or display at an accredited zoo. Sika deer, which have the body of a deer but elklike antlers, can breed with native elk, polluting the gene pool, said Capt. Steve Dauma of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Sikas won’t breed with native deer but can spread diseases such as tuberculosis and brucelosis to other deer.
Wilburn was one of about a dozen sika-deer farmers who were told in 1992 and 1993 that they could keep their animals if they reported their number and location, prevented their escape with 8-foot fences and didn’t sell them or allow them to breed.
Wilburn ignored the notices, Dauma said, flying under the radar until three years ago.
In early 2001, Fish and Wildlife Officer Alan Myers had already been tracking Wilburn’s sika deer, including some he’d sold to an intermediary, which had ended up at a petting zoo. Myers’ first two visits were meant to be educational “knock and talks,” intended to inform Wilburn about the new fencing and sterilization requirements. Wilburn, who’d posted large no-trespassing signs all over his property, had twice threatened to shoot Myers, according to both Wilburn and Myers.
And then came the day Myers and other wildlife officers refer to as “The Day of the Deer.” That’s also when Wilburn thinks his deer troubles began.
On Dec. 3, 2001, Myers and Officer Brian Fulton were on patrol nearby when a dispatcher mentioned a call about “a deer holding subjects in a day care hostage.” Fulton and Myers chuckled, wondering exactly how a deer might do that.
As soon as they arrived at the day-care facility on Paradise Lane, they saw a large sika buck prancing back and forth, throwing its antlers back, its neck engorged. The deer had a dog collar around its antlers and was trailing a length of rope, as if it had been tethered to a post.
“It was a wild-eyed, classic deer in rut,” Myers said, referring to the deer’s mating season. Myers and Fulton agreed they needed to destroy the animal but debated whether to tranquilize it first, especially since a gaggle of kids was pressed up against a window, watching the scene.
“We didn’t want to nuke this animal right in front of them,” Myers said.
That’s when Fish and Wildlife Officer Richard Oosterwyk arrived to help out. The senior officer on the scene, Oosterwyk worried that killing the animal might earn them and the department a lawsuit, despite regulations saying they had the right to dispose of the animal. His intent was to immobilize the deer with a dart filled with “a real nice cocktail of Ketamine and Zylazine,” he said.
“Knowing the deer belonged down the street, I didn’t want to kill it for the fun of it,” he said.
As the three debated how to deal with the animal, a neighbor showed up to say the buck had just attacked his teenage son, tearing his clothes and slightly injuring him, as both had tried to distract it away from the children.
Meanwhile, the deer was coming closer and closer, weaving back and forth and pawing the ground like an angry bull, Myers said. He tried to alert Oosterwyk, who had his back turned from the animal.
The way Oosterwyk remembers it, he was headed back to his Ford pickup, parked 50 yards away, to get a tranquilizer rifle, when the deer charged.
Myers saw it rush into Oosterwyk’s backside, “bucking him around real good and shredding his ripstop nylon overalls.”
Oosterwyk cursed and drew his .45 automatic, shooting the animal. But, according to Myers, that didn’t stop the buck, which rammed Oosterwyk again, this time in front, before the officer could shoot again, this time mortally wounding it.
“It didn’t die immediately, which was kind of nice because I wanted it to suffer a little bit, since at that point my legs felt like they were on fire,” Oosterwyk said.
“Ricky got a long rifle out of his rig, had some choice words for the buck and dispatched it then and there,” Myers said. “But he was right. Ricky was right. He got sued.”
Oosterwyk didn’t think it would do much good to tell Wilburn he’d shot his deer. So he loaded the dead buck in his pickup and had it ground into hamburger, later donating the meat to a local charity. So, in February 2003, Wilburn sued Oosterwyk and his department in federal court for more than $2 million, for allegedly violating his constitutional rights, harassing him and shooting a deer Wilburn valued at $6,000.
The suit was dismissed, and Oosterwyk’s fellow wildlife officers presented him with the deer’s antlers mounted on a plaque to “commemorate his attack and survival on ‘The Day of the Deer,’ ” Myers said.
It now falls to Oosterwyk to ensure that Wilburn has bumped off his remaining deer.
“If he gets in my way, he will be arrested for being in contempt of a court order,” Oosterwyk said.
But Wilburn has other plans for his future. He hopes to sell his 25 acres to an Everett real-estate firm for $1.25 million. If he can find some way around the resulting taxes, he’ll take the money and buy “a piece of saltwater front on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.”
There, he figures he can retire and eat oysters and clams for the rest of his life, without anybody bothering him.
Rosario Daza: 206-464-2393 or firstname.lastname@example.org