Over the last five months, sled dogs in Nome were attacked by musk oxen in at least four separate incidents. In October, one of the attacks resulted in the death of a dog, and now, people in the community, including the pet owner, are questioning what can be done to prevent further loss of life.
Longtime Nome resident Vickie Erickson has become accustomed to dealing with musk oxen near her home in the Icy View neighborhood. Erickson said that over the last few years, she has lost four dogs to musk ox attacks.
"Our dogs are family; they are not anything other than just family," Erickson said. "We spend hours a day with them; Mitch walks them two or three hours every night; no matter what the weather, he's with them. And we've tried everything. We've tried fences; we've tried the dog pens. I saw one Facebook post: 'Well, why didn't the dumb dog run away?' Well, you know, there are city rules, and dogs have to be chained, as they should be; they shouldn't be allowed to run around free. But that makes them, certainly, a target."
During Erickson's latest encounter with musk oxen Oct. 3, which she describes as a traumatic experience, Erickson's family dog for six years, Bart, was fatally wounded.
Erickson said she then called the Nome Police Department and the dispatcher told her that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game would send someone to respond to the incident.
Fish and Game biologist Bill Dunker recalled that the responding employee did not take action against the offending musk ox in this incident.
"Of the four instances where we had musk oxen that attacked dogs, two of those animals were shot and killed in defense of life and property, one of those animals was removed by the department, and the fourth animal we were unable to identify, and that animal or those animals in the area did not continue to exhibit aggressive behavior, and so no further action was taken in that instance," Dunker said.
When it comes to killing wild game animals outside of hunting seasons, the defense of life and property regulations, under state law, dictate what can and can't be done.
For example, a DLP report must be completed after an animal like a musk ox is killed. Then the meat must be salvaged, and it's given over to Fish and Game, which then donates it to those in need.
"In an instance where an animal poses a threat to somebody's safety or their property, before killing the animal, they take all of their means that are practical in a given situation to deter that animal," Dunker said. "So in the event that all other means, practical, don't successfully deter that animal, and it continues to pose a threat to public safety, at that point they can legally harvest or kill that animal."
Dunker says various means used to deter musk oxen in the past have included inflatable bear decoys, water hoses and rubber bullets. Fish and Game has even experimented with bear-urine-scented wicks. Most of these efforts have been unsuccessful.
The best deterrent Dunker recommends is to use some sort of protection or enclosure for outside dogs, as a barrier between them and musk oxen.
"For household pets, a securely anchored, free-standing chain-link enclosure would be a good choice for keeping animals safe around your home or something like that, and certainly some type of fencing for larger areas, be it high-tensile or chain-link — those are a couple of good alternatives that people can use to protect their animals."
Before her dog Bart was attacked for the third and final time, Erickson said, she and her husband took several preventive steps, including using different types of barriers.
"We were out of pens, and fences didn't hold them out — pens didn't hold them out," Erickson said. "And this time, Mitch had put a bunch of equipment … he put a Jeep down there, we had connex vans, the greenhouse, a smoker, an outhouse, four-wheelers, snowmachines — all around these dogs, just trying to make some kind of barrier. And one (musk ox) got in, and that was all she wrote."
Musk oxen tend to attack dogs because they perceive dogs as wolves, but during the fall, when musk oxen are in their rut, Dunker said, they are typically even more aggressive.
When asked why these fatal encounters between dogs and musk oxen have been happening more frequently in Nome, Dunker said he could not speculate on that.
Wildlife trooper Maggie Stang sometimes responds to musk oxen incidents on her own or alongside Fish and Game employees. She has observed musk oxen blocking portions of the runway at the local airport, and in one incident this summer, a bear killed a musk ox on the runway, which created an obstacle for planes. Stang believes musk oxen could also be a threat to human lives in situations like these, not just out in Icy View.
Erickson said she and other people she knows have been threatened and charged by a musk ox before. She suggests that further action be taken, like removing all of the musk oxen from within Nome city limits, before a musk ox claims a human life as well.
"I'm so upset about the loss of my dog that I really don't care if they are herded out, airlifted out or otherwise," Erickson said. "I don't think they should be allowed to be so well protected within the city limits that they put everybody else at risk. For me, next year, I think I'm going to take the Women on Target class and become very familiar with using my gun, and do the best I can to protect myself on my walks and my last remaining dog I have."
So far, Fish and Game has not proposed any further action.
Erickson said, for now, she and her family won't adopt any more dogs in order to prevent more animals from being killed by musk oxen.