Relations between musk oxen and Nome residents get testy

Sandra L. Medearis
Musk oxen are increasingly leaving the wild to wander into the old Gold Rush town of Nome, scaring residents and harassing dogs. One woman recently shot at one of the shaggy beasts to protect her dogs. Photo by SANDRA L. MEDEARIS

Good fences make good neighbors. -- Robert Frost

NOME -- There was a time not long ago when one had to take visitors for a drive up Anvil Mountain to see musk oxen and maybe -- not always -- get to see them off the right side of the road. Then camera shutters would begin a frenzied staccato.

Now, musk oxen have claimed the tundra and town so that the landscape around Nome is heavily populated with the short-legged, bushy-haired mammals. They are such a common sight that many people no longer slow their vehicles to gawk.

As a result, two species, humans and musk oxen, want to occupy the same land, with sometimes tragic or near-tragic clashes. Many talk about solutions, but none has been reached. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says that for now, fences could separate the musk oxen from domestic animals and children to minimize injuries stemming from the contest over habitat.

Another bloody incident recently between a musk ox and a dog underlines the need for a lasting solution. As of now, there is little likelihood that musk oxen can graze peacefully among humans and their domestic animals without aggressive musk oxen staking and defending territory from dogs, which resemble a musk ox's arch enemy, the wolf.

Saturday night, Sarah Swartz of Martinsonville Subdivision heard warning barks after she put her dogs out for the business before bedtime.

"I heard my little dog bark a warning. Then I heard my big dog, Cole, make a painful bark like he was hurt. When I went outside, there was a very large bull musk ox standing about 10 feet from where my dog should be," Swartz said. It looked like it was her height at the shoulders.

A neighbor yelled across the way, saying she had seen the musk ox charge Swartz's dog.

"I couldn't see my dog anywhere," Swartz said.

"I ran back inside and grabbed the only rifle that I knew had rounds in it. I shot three times at the musk ox. Meanwhile, my neighbor, Mary Ruud, called the cops," Swartz said. "The musk ox sauntered away into the high brush behind the house and disappeared."

After the musk ox parted the willows behind the house and made for the tundra, Swartz looked for her German shepherd, Cole. She found him under the deck, his chest bleeding from a wound where the musk ox had tried to drive in one of its curved horns.

"I was hysterical," Swartz said. "I have never been so scared in my life. It was like a horror movie."

Swartz told the police she had hit the musk ox.

"I will go to jail anytime for shooting to protecting my 6-year-old stepdaughter, my family, my dog and my property," Swartz vowed.

The musk ox has not been found..

"I'm sure I hit him with all three shots," she said. "The first shot, I hit him in the hindquarters, I saw him flinch. The second shot, I aimed at the shoulder and neck area, he flinched. The third shot I aimed right at the ear-eye and it shook his head," she said.

According to Swartz, the three police officers who responded were sympathetic and helped her with her dog.

"They were great. They wanted to make sure my dog got care as soon as possible."

After she finished with police, Swartz loaded her dog in her vehicle, which Ruud drove to town, where Nome's veterinarian, Derrick Leedy, and his wife, Martina, waited. "I was too shook up to drive," Swartz said.

Cole is on the mend and expected to recover from a gash in his chest.

Later, as she pointed out the musk ox tracks by Cole's doghouse, she found his red dog tag in the dirt. She thinks it was torn off Cole's collar during the attack.

The Nome-Teller Highway runs by the front of the red two-story house. There are houses on each side. But in back, where Cole's doghouse stands, only a few feet of backyard separate the house from the tundra.

"It's not the musk ox's fault," Swartz said. "I love musk ox. They are fascinating animals that give beauty, meat and qiviut for warm clothing, but something has to be done," she said.

"Fish and Game has to use their resources, or, if it is not their responsibility, tell us where we can go to get help. I could have lost my dog, who is one of my family members," she said. "I want my dog to die of natural causes, because he lived a long good life, not because he was barking and trying to protect his family, then was killed by a wild animal."

Indeed, musk ox have been a nuisance and a threat in town as their numbers grow and their fear of humans diminishes. Fish and Game staff say obvious solutions have been tried and do not work. The list of attacks or near attacks goes on:

• In June, a herd of musk oxen bedded down in Tom and Elsie Vaden's yard near the north end of Steadman.

• Earlier in June, Dr. Carolyn MacDougald's dog woke her early in the morning. When she went to the door, "I found myself staring into the eyes of an agitated musk ox right at the base of my front porch," she wrote on a community e-mail group. "Just want you to know that this bull is not worried about cornering chained dogs onto their porches in people's yards. There is the fact that our kids are also in the habit of being outside as well."

• In July, a musk ox went into Keith Conger's yard in Icyview, stomped around, but was interrupted when Conger went out to check on barking. "I caught it ramming the doghouses and was able to chase it away," he said. "Unlike last year, no dogs were hurt."

• At the end of last month, Marty Ruud, whose yard has been visited often by musk ox, put out a call for a paintball gun "that would be adequate for local residents to mark aggressive musk ox. Something that would leave a really big hard-to-miss mark on the musk ox that Fish and Game couldn't miss."

Last year, veterinarian Leedy reported five incidents in a two-week period in October when at least five dogs had been gored and thrown in the air. "The injuries to dogs are extremely dangerous," he said, "with usually a least two large deep and penetrating long wounds that penetrate vital organs."

Fish and Game often comes under fire on the musk ox issue. Attempting to deal with musk ox has no obvious solutions, according to biologist Tony Gorn. Fish and Game has tried and found dealing with the musk ox exceedingly trying. Gorn is called out of bed frequently to deal with musk ox conflicts. Nome police put out musk ox alerts to keep residents in the know when musk oxen come close.

Driving the musk ox away from town, when possible, is a short-lived answer. Game managers can move musk ox easily across a clearing. =

"On open terrain you can walk musk ox forever. However, once you get them to a ditch, creek bottom or a stand of willows, that's where they hunker down and will not move," Gorn said.

Fish and Game staff has experimented with means to dissuade musk ox from taking their appetites to town, according Gorn. Loud noises -- firecrackers and bells -- helicopters, rubber bullets, pickup trucks, even Taser shock guns do not have lasting effect, practical studies have shown. So far, the musk ox will be where they want to be.

"You drive them away, remove them, and the next day they will be right back where they were, even farther in," Gorn said. "We move lots of musk ox. They come right back like the tide."

Problem is, Nome and the surrounding areas are very attractive to the vegetarian musk ox, with plentiful willows and sedge, good cover and no predators.

There was a time, in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Nome residents found musk ox attractive, Gorn said. People wanted no hunting near town, wanting to keep musk ox in the camera viewfinder for themselves, relatives and tourists. 'We love our musk ox,' they said.

"The community of Nome had a strong appreciation for wildlife viewing, but attitudes change," Gorn observed.

The original musk ox population in Alaska became extinct in the 1800s. An effort to re-establish the short, squat animals has been very successful, stemming from musk ox brought from Greenland in the 1930s.

Fish and Game has increased musk ox hunting in the local area over the past couple years, but limited hunting arms to shotguns with slugs, bows and arrows and muzzle loaders to keep high-powered rifle shots from flying in populated areas.

Game managers continue to study solutions for aggressive musk oxen.

"As nuisance animals, the incidents we worry about fall into two classes: musk ox that do not let people get out of their cars or go in and out of their houses, or the terribly sad event where they kill dogs, or more seriously," said Gorn. "The musk ox that threaten airport and aviation safety, where musk oxen on the runway, could cause a catastrophic aircraft crash."

Gorn said Fish and Game had been working with airport safety personnel to get a fence around Nome Airport, where willows and the nearby Snake River make good musk oxen habitat. October is a crucial month for clearing and keeping musk ox marauders off runways.

"In October it is dark and snow has not accumulated to chase the animals back into the hills," Gorn said. "They do not concern us as much in June and July, when we have good, 24-hour daylight."

Serving the public interest as regards musk oxen is complex, Gorn said.

"We deal with three stances on musk ox: people who want to kill every wild animal in town, people who say 'Don't touch them' and those who want us to manage the animals very carefully so there will be more to hunt. Those three divergent viewpoints have to be balanced.

"If you have dogs or small children and live in musk ox habitat, I urge the public to get chain-link fencing connected to the ground, around yards or for 6-by-6 dog enclosures." Gorn said. "Chain link has been very effective with my yard ,where they have visited for the past four years."

Says Nome resident Swartz: "This is city land. There's property, there's people, there's land that we have to defend ourselves. Luckily I wasn't afraid to shoot. Other people have been afraid to shoot because of Fish and Game."

Incidents in which people shoot musk ox to defend their property are between them and the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Gorn said.

Swartz said she did not want to get into a fight with Fish and Game but "if another bull musk ox comes anywhere near that close to my home and my family again, I will not hesitate to fire as many rounds as it takes to put it down," Swartz said.

"If need be, they can arrest me for it. In the end I will know what I did was the right thing, and I did the most I could to do within my power to protect my family, which aside from my fiance and stepdaughter includes my dogs."

Alaska State Troopers have warned Swartz that according to law, she must harvest the meat from the musk ox she shot. So far, she has not found it.

The Nome Nugget