Wildlife

‘A game mismanagement problem’: After fatal goring, Nome group demands state change its approach to musk oxen

Nome, Musk ox

Less than a month after a Nome dog musher and Alaska Department of Public Safety employee was killed during a fatal encounter with a musk ox, a group of residents is asking the state to change how it manages the animals.

In a petition circulating online with an extensive dossier of supporting testimony, the organizers say that in the decades since the animals were transplanted to the Seward Peninsula, the herds have morphed from a novelty to a nuisance to, now, a liability, threatening pets, property and people.

“We, the residents of rural Alaska, request that Governor Dunleavy, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and any other stakeholders in wildlife management in Alaska hold accountability and honor their duty in managing the game and wildlife of the Bering Strait region and beyond. Change is desperately needed for the citizens of this region to feel empowered in defending themselves and their animals without fear of prosecution,” wrote petition organizers Miranda Musich and Sarah Swartz, both of Nome.

The petition, which as of Monday had over 1,200 signatures online, is addressed to Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. Organizers received more than 80 responses to a poll asking community members if they felt safe with musk oxen so close to town. According to the results, 82% said no.

“While Muskoxen in and around populated areas in the Nome area has been an issue for nearly two decades, it has escalated to the point where we can no longer stay silent while hoping that state game management entities will do the right thing and manage muskoxen as a state resource,” Musich and Swartz wrote in the introduction to a 40-page dossier, assembled by a group calling itself Reform for Rural Alaskan Muskox Management.

The document includes lengthy testimonials from longtime Nome and Bering Strait residents about worsening problems with the roving bovids as they’ve lost their fear of humans, along with gruesome photos of gored pets, and homes and playgrounds blocked by stationary clusters of the animals.

“When we give them safe harbor they become aggressive and entitled,” Musich said on the phone. “When they raise their babies in the safety of our front yard, they think they are entitled to that safety.”

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Among the general suggestions proposed in the documents and testimonies are culling the herds that have grown the most comfortable and assertive around town, as well as expanding subsistence harvest opportunities. Proponents say the hip-high horned goats need to be managed as the wild animals they are, instead of like city moose in Anchorage or harmless marauding mascots.

“We don’t want to wipe them out, but the respect needs to go both ways,” Musich said.

Though plenty of Nome residents have long grumbled about increasingly common conflicts with musk oxen, the issue tipped definitively in December when a highly regarded community member, Curtis Worland, was killed by one as he was using a snowmachine to ward some of the animals away from his dog lot a few miles down the road from town. It is the first such fatal goring those in Alaska familiar with musk oxen can recall.

According Kamey Kapp Worland, the animal lacerated her husband’s femoral artery, causing him to bleed to death before he could get to the road and seek help.

“As Nome residents since 2008/2009 and dog mushers since 2011, Curtis and I have experienced that the need to push musk ox away from our dog lot has increased exponentially,” Kamey Kapp Worland wrote in a letter alongside the petition.

That observation is echoed by other longtime residents throughout the compiled dossier.

“Members have increasingly been negatively impacted by the rise in numbers of musk oxen,” said the board of the Nome Kennel Club, which counts itself as the “world’s oldest sled dog kennel club.”

“These animals have learned that humans pose no threat to them and their behavior becomes bolder and bolder. There have been many close encounters between sled dog teams and musk oxen, more than we can recount here,” the board continued. “A brief survey amongst former and current NKC members has revealed that over the past few years there have been at least 11 sled dog deaths due to musk ox gorings, and 22 serious, sled-dog-career-ending injuries.”

Nor is fixed property immune. Aggressive musk oxen have butted their way through barrier fences and into yards and dog lots. A $1.9 million fence was constructed around the town’s airport to keep animals from wandering onto runways. According to the petition, the animals also have destroyed grave sites.

“This threat is not limited to just Nome residents, but extends to people living in Brevig Mission and other communities where they have caused damages such as knocking over people’s heating fuel tanks, resulting in the loss of (their) primary heating source and costly repairs,” wrote Melanie Bahnke, president of Kawerak, the regional non-profit for the Bering Strait.

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Keith Conger, a retired school teacher and wilderness guide, wrote that he was lucky the musk oxen had never killed any of his dogs, only injuring two of them.

“One musk ox, however, struck my son as he was trying to protect our animals,” Conger said.

Like others who submitted testimonials and comments, Conger faulted the state’s management approach as contributing to the problem. The musk oxen grazing their way across Western Alaska today, from Nunivak Island to the North Slope, are descendants of Greenlandic animals brought over in the 1930s as a biological experiment to revitalize the indigenous stocks wiped out after the proliferation of hunting rifles. A population was transplanted to the Bering Strait region in the 1970s.

Though there are unresolved questions about the presence of musk oxen on the Seward Peninsula prior to animals’ extinction from Alaska, they regardless would have been treated differently by Indigenous residents than today’s hands-off system of limited hunts regulated by the state. Inupiaq subsistence hunters in the Sitnasuak region would have been unlikely to let a wooly bull idly munch on sedge in the front yard of a fish camp for very long, let alone a dozen of them.

“I am not shy about saying this is not a game management problem but a game mismanagement problem,” Conger said. “Because (Fish and Game) has allowed many generations of young musk oxen to grow up in the protected refuge they have created, these now semi-domesticated animals no longer display their normal, wild behavior.”

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Several of those weighing in on the issue say there is no clear guidance from state officials on what to do when the animals pose a threat, fearing that if they discharge a weapon within city limits to scare them off or dispatch an aggressive bull they’ll face legal punishment.

The petitioners offered a number of other possible measures, including training volunteers with more effective tactics for chasing off herds, and revisiting attempts at domesticating the musk oxen populations, as was done in Unalakleet in the 1970s and 1980s.

Though organizers and concerned citizens made their case to a regional game advisory panel last month, such local entities are limited in what steps they can take, and the group has received no response from state wildlife managers so far.

“Not a peep,” Musich said.

Messages left with a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Monday were not returned.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that musk oxen had broken through a newly constructed fence at Nome’s airport. They have not, and the fence has largely worked keeping the animals off of runways, according to the state Department of Transportation.

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, dog mushing, politics, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the ADN he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

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