A rogue bull musk ox that had been hanging around Kotzebue for several days met its end Tuesday when it was shot by a biologist after it refused to take the hint and stay away.
The young male had been driven out of town several times but kept returning and as a matter of public safety was put down. But not before it wandered into Iditarod champion John Baker's dog lot and gored one of his huskies in the leg.
After the dog yard disturbance, the animal made its way to a construction site where it became apparent that it would continue to be a nuisance and posed a threat to local residents. The meat was harvested and given to the Maniilaq Traditional Foods Program to be distributed to local Elders. The head was sent to Anchorage where it will be auctioned off or donated for educational purposes.
"This isn't the first time we've had a musk ox close to Kotzebue, but I guess what makes this case unusual was his persistence," said Jim Dau, an area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The musk ox saga began on the evening of June 27 when Dau got a call about a musk ox near the NANA building. By the time he got there, Dau said the animal was inside the fence at the airport and had cornered itself between some buildings and a fuel tank. Dau, the airport manager, and a pilot chased him out of town to the dump. Over the weekend, there was no sign of it.
But it returned on Monday afternoon and was again run out of town with the aid of Dau in a plane, and the airport manager on a four-wheeler. Early Tuesday morning, Dau got a call that the bull had returned and was in Baker's dog lot.
"By the time I got there it was about 6:15 in the morning and I figured the Brice Construction crew at the airport was going to get cooking, and the chance of us driving that bull out of town; past houses, past kids and dogs, past construction guys, well, it would be a lot different because when he came in that night, it was quiet," Dau said. "I didn't want to take any chances, I didn't have any good options because I didn't have any immobilization drugs here and I couldn't get any quickly."
Dau shot the animal and immediately called for help to butcher it.
Destroying an animal is always a last resort, Dau said, and one that is not taken lightly. Obviously he would have preferred not to, but there was no other choice in this particular instance.
"If I had had drugs on hand, I would have darted him. I didn't want to kill him. I just wasn't willing to take the chance that somebody was going to get hurt."
Young male musk oxen routinely break away from, or are run out of, the herd when the rutting season is about to start.
Dau surmised that this bull could smell a herd on the other side of Kotzebue Sound, unaware that 10 miles of water separated it from its cohorts, and was trying with all its might to get there.
"He was, by God, determined that he was going to get to them and to do that, he had to walk through town," Dau said.
The musk ox wasn't aggressive, he added. Musk ox don't care about dogs, they were simply in its path. The behemoth, which most likely weighed between 500 and 600 pounds, tossed at least one dog and a doghouse into the air on its way through.
The dog is expected to recover, said Alan Butera, the city's animal control officer who was first on the scene in the dog yard.
"When I got there, it had already flipped a dog house and was standing on the perimeter of the dog yard," Butera recalled. "It went over toward the dogs and it flipped the dog and the dog is just running in a circle. It was one of those crazy sights. It was pretty wild."
Butera, who has been the city's animal control officer for 10 years, and the dog handler tried everything they could think of to get the hairy gargantuan away from the dogs, but the musk ox was unfazed by the effort.
The musk ox eventually walked away and into the heavy equipment yard where it stood its ground between a couple of buildings. It charged Butera once, he said.
Dau showed up shortly after that, he said.
"We really wish we could have got it out of town, it was never our intent to have the animal destroyed," Butera said, adding that with the town starting to wake up, it was becoming a more dangerous situation.
A herd of musk oxen have set up shop in Nome on the Seward Peninsula and, despite wildlife officials' best efforts, are determined to stay put. They have killed at least a few dogs in the area, though no people have been injured.
"Once they get into town, it gets really tough," Dau said. "Down in Nome, for the past month or six weeks, Fish and Game staff there have spent an inordinate amount of time slowly moving musk ox, but they didn't have to move them through a construction site."
Musk oxen generally don't herd very well, he added. Their instinct is to stand in a line and face whatever is in front of them.
"From what I see, the problem isn't with the musk ox, they don't want to hurt anybody, but they won't put up with any guff when people or dogs come close," Dau said.
"That's where the problem is: People want to get too close. In a perfect world where people could and would just stay away, they would probably wander out of town. But realistically, people live in town … and that's where the conflict is.
"We made the best of a bad situation."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.