Nome community members voice concerns over musk oxen population

Community members voice their opinions on musk oxen herds in the Nome area, and what should be done about them.
Published: Jan. 30, 2023 at 9:29 PM AKST|Updated: Jan. 31, 2023 at 9:55 PM AKST
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NOME, Alaska (KTUU) - On Dec. 13, Alaska State Troopers Court Services Officer Curtis Worland was killed by a musk ox while defending a dog kennel on his property. Community members in Nome have responded to the issue by voicing their concerns about the musk oxen population in the region.

“If you have an aggressive musk ox and someone like Curtis can fall victim to that then you know, some eight-year-old playing out in Icyview doesn’t stand a chance,” community member Miranda Musich said.

Musich created a dossier titled Reform for Rural Alaskan Muskox Management with fellow community member Sara Schwartz after her friend Worland was killed. Musich’s document shows photos and testimonies submitted by other residents of Nome detailing their encounters with musk oxen. Alongside the testimonies are letters of support from community members, including the Nome Kennel Club.

“I would like to have the state fund a volunteer group, maybe headed by a Wildlife Trooper or Fish and Game member to help move herds out of populated areas, provide training, provide equipment — whatever we need to help people move herds out of populated areas,” Musich said.

Along with Musich’s personal wishes, the dossier includes several ideas for solutions such as issuing an emergency order to reduce the number of musk oxen around city limits, providing resources for non-lethal ways to move herds, and opening up more opportunities for hunting musk oxen in the region.

Associate professor of biology Claudia Ihl, who works the at University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Northwest Campus, has a few ideas about why musk oxen are coming into populated areas.

“What I’m finding is that the all the human activity in town— the mining, especially — creates habitat that is good for musk oxen because mining disturbs the ground,” Ihl said. “And then when it regrows, it has a lot of the early successional stages of plants — like you know, young willows, later in the summer, fireweed — and most importantly, grasses.”

Ihl said grasses especially attractive to musk oxen, and miners will often plant grass seed after they have finished mining in a specific spot — which creates the perfect feeding ground for musk oxen. According to Ihl, the herds in town today have been coming through Nome for about a decade, meaning that most of the musk oxen in the herds have been coming through since they were calves and are dangerously used to human activity.

While Ihl is open to discussions regarding how the community handles the musk ox within city limits, she also says that people should manage their expectations about the animals, and be aware that the land surrounding Nome is habitat that is ideal for musk oxen. Ihl recommends mining operations discontinue the practice of seeding disturbed lands to prevent future dangerous encounters, which can be made even more dangerous by ground conditions during the winter.

“You cannot herd them around the same way you do in the summer, in snow conditions like this. Musk oxen are simply unable to move through deep snow, they cannot handle deep snow. And if you put pressure on them by trying to herd them away, they won’t be able to do that. They can’t move,” Ihl said.

Ihl also attributed their slow speed in the winter to their need to conserve energy and their lack of ability to move in deep snow. These frustrations could lead to the animals acting hostile if they were to feel trapped.

“It’s like driving them into a corner where they can’t escape if you have them stuck in deep snow, and you keep pushing,” Ihl said.

It’s important to keep this in mind when moving a herd Ihl says, to prevent an accidents from happening.