Advisory panel hears pleas to thin musk ox herds in Nome
By Diana Haecker
Not even a week after Curtis Worland, a Nome musher and Alaska State Trooper Court Services Officer, succumbed to injuries inflicted by a musk ox, several dog mushers and other Nome residents pleaded with the Northern Norton Sound Fish and Game Advisory Committee on Monday to consider changes to the management of an ever-growing number of musk oxen in Nome.
On Tuesday, December 13, Worland, 36, was attacked by a musk ox as he hazed a herd of the animals away from his sled dog kennel at the Nome-Teller Road.
Trooper spokesperson Austin McDaniel said that CSO Worland’s death has been determined to be a line-of-duty death, as he was on a paid break when he was killed.
“CSOs, like troopers, are required to be available to respond to emergencies should they arise while they are on their paid break time,” McDaniel said in a statement. “He is the first Court Services Officer in Alaska to die while on duty and is the 69th Alaska law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty.”
On Wednesday, a procession of emergency vehicles took Worland’s remains to the Alaska National Guard Hangar and into a state airplane for transport to Anchorage. In Anchorage, an emergency procession took him to the State Medical Examiner from where the body was released to an Anchorage funeral home later that week.
A celebration of life will take place in Nome on January 7.
McDaniel said that on Thursday, December 15, that AST and Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials located the suspected musk ox involved in the death of CSO Worland.
Tony Gorn, Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Region 5 Supervisor, said in an email to the Nugget that initially, ADF&G did not respond with AST or the ambulance “because we weren’t notified. We were not aware of the event until several hours later.”
He said the animal was identified after two days of searching the local area by snowmachine and helicopter. “Staff used binoculars and spotting scopes to evaluate if any musk oxen showed sign of external physical evidence or abnormal behavior,” Gorn wrote. They spotted 10 groups totaling approximately 125 musk oxen.
The musk ox was dispatched by an Alaska Wildlife Trooper on Thursday, approximately one mile away from the location of the encounter with CSO Worland. The musk ox dispatched was a mature female, said Gorn. “The necropsy found both external and internal indications the musk ox was involved in a recent encounter inconsistent with what could be considered normal physical health for this time of year,” Gorn said. The musk ox was in a group of approximately eight animals that joined a larger group of approximately 30 musk oxen.
Despite the lack of public notice of Monday’s regular Northern Norton Sound Advisory panel meeting, a group of residents found their way to the small meeting room at Northwest Campus or attended telephonically. Such meetings rarely attract the public in high numbers and seeing a roomful of people who came to comment, chairman Charlie Lean moved public comment up in the agenda to give those present a fair hearing before the committee was to address fish proposals. Lifelong Nome resident Miranda Musich was the first to address the advisory council, AC for short, regarding recent events and events that have been escalating overtime. “What happened to Curtis was the final straw for me,” she said.
Growing up in Nome, she said, musk oxen were not an issue but became one in the early 2000s. “We understand that musk oxen are here and that they will not go away, but we feel that they have been mismanaged and that we don’t have the right to protect ourselves and our property without risk of us being prosecuted for defending ourselves,” Musich said. After the goring, she started an informal survey and garnered 53 responses of people in Nome, and outlying communities, that recounted their experiences with musk oxen. Out of 53 respondents, 44, or 83 percent, said they don’t feel safe in their community with musk oxen in close proximity to town.
Musich said she is still gathering information through the survey and will put forth a petition with a list of possible solutions.
Then came testimony after testimony of mushers losing dogs to musk oxen, dealing with injured dogs, spending hours on end of pushing herds of the shaggy animals out of their yards and recounting many close calls to humans. Jeff Darling said he lost five dogs to musk ox attacks and had ten dogs injured multiple times by musk oxen. He said his wife Peggy saved an ADF&G biologist from being overrun by a herd of musk oxen as she tried to haze them out of the Lester Bench neighborhood, with nothing more than rubber bullets as a weapon. Peggy drove a truck between the biologist and the herd, picking up the biologist as the herd turned “like a ballerina” all at once and moved toward her.
Darling said, it’s time that there is a good-size harvest of musk oxen in Nome proper.
Garrick Fuller, who ran dogs with mushers Kamey Kapp-Worland and her husband Curtis, said they run musk oxen off all the time, but that the animals just don’t respond anymore. “It takes a lot now to run them off,” he said. Now, mushers have to make it a habit to scout the trails before they hook up a dog team to go out on a run. He also recounted a situation where he and visiting guests took a walk out by Dredge 5 and while seeing a herd on the road, they suddenly realized that they were surrounded by musk oxen, some hidden in thick willows, some blocking the way back to Icy View.
Musher Nils Hahn also testified to the same effect, that the oxen are so habituated to being around people, cars and city life, that it is nearly impossible to chase them off anymore.
Kamey Kapp Worland wrote in a subsequent communication with the Nugget, that she wanted to make the point that “we are asking for these animals to be harvested in a way not to wipe them out but to have them again have the proper respect/fear of humans that they should naturally have.”
They aren’t supposed to be predators, but they are initiating attacks on dogs and humans, she said. “The predators in our area (wolves and bears) are hunted in a manner in which they generally maintain a safe distance from populated areas because they know from experience what happens if they don’t. The musk ox need to re-learn the same,” she wrote.
Jacob Martin and Chrystie Salesky own sled dogs at the dog lot uphill from the cemetery. Martin said he rolled his four-wheeler on one of the many occasions he had to push musk oxen out of their kennel. He said, due to wildlife laws that prohibit wildlife harassment and strict DLP laws, he fears retaliation from ADF&G and is left with the choice to either defend his dogs or run afoul of the law.
Salesky said she has PTSD from all the horrible things she’s seen: dogs being gored, having to dispatch dogs that were badly injured and not having the opportunity to take their children out to the dog lot for fear of musk ox encounters. On the phone were two residents of Lester Bench, who testified that they’re under siege in the summertime by musk oxen and that their children cannot safely play outside.
Diana Adams gave telephonic testimony. A few years back, at her Icy View home, she shot a musk ox as it attacked her dog in an enclosure. A wildlife trooper then charged her with taking an animal out of season, but later downgraded the ticket to a warning. Adams said it’s time to reconsider that musk oxen are “charismatic” animals and that musk ox viewing as a state resource for tourism is in direct conflict to the safety of the people who live here.
Tony Gorn, also present at the meeting, explained the complicated layers of wildlife management but that ADF&G is not enforcing, that’s the job of the Dept. of Public Safety. “I am not aware that a DLP (defense of life and property kill) has been questioned,” he said.
In a subsequent email answering follow up questions by the Nugget, Gorn wrote, “There isn’t a muskox management strategy in place that conserves harvest to promote wildlife viewing opportunities. Consumptive and non-consumptive uses of Alaska’s wildlife are a consideration throughout Alaska’s layered regulatory process, but harvest occurs at the sustained yield principle.”
He explained that during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Nome area road system hunts used winter hunting season dates that considered summer wildlife viewing opportunities. “This allowed subsistence hunters the opportunity to harvest musk ox using snowmachines during a season when meat and hides were in good condition and also provided summer wildlife viewing opportunities of musk oxen, but available and sustainable harvest remained consistent regardless of the timing of hunting season dates,” he wrote.
In 2014, residents of Nome concerned with increasing numbers of musk oxen in the local Nome area proposed summer hunting season dates and this proposal was adopted into regulation by the Alaska Board of Game.
The Tier 2 hunt came under criticism to reduce musk ox numbers as nine tags are given out and only three are actually filled. Tier 2 subsistence permit hunts are held when there is not enough game to satisfy all subsistence needs and are for residents only, according to Alaska hunting regulations. Hunters are asked questions concerning their dependence on the game and the availability of alternative resources. A scoring system is then applied to pick the hunter getting the tag. In Nome, Unit 22C, the hunt is restricted to one bull, taken by bow and arrow, a muzzleloader or by shotgun only, between August 1 and March 15.
Tony Gorn explained that musk ox numbers doubled between 2005 and 2007 and the animals changed their distribution to areas closer to Nome. As a result, the hunt was changed to start in August but the summer and early fall hunting season dates have been largely unpopular with hunters and most harvest continues to occur during winter months, he said.
He said he appreciated the comments but also said that “we’re not able to get out of the Tier 2 hunt” and that ADF&G cannot develop a strategy for an animal-free zone.
Darling summarized the consensus, that nobody expects a musk ox-free area. “But we’re also asking to not have 200 in the city limits,” Darling said.
Most of the time, people have to fend for themselves as musk oxen take up residency in their neighborhood and AC chair Lean commented on the danger that people start shooting within city limits. “I got upset when I was picking lead [from bullets] out of the handrail and the front door of my house,” he said. “If you DLP an animal, make sure you know what you’re shooting at.”
Keane Richards, calling in, also stressed that point. As a lifelong hunter and one who’s been around firearms his whole life, he said, “the worst possible situation is we have a DLP and someone’s making a fatal mistake with a firearm.”
Not having a full grasp on navigating the lengthy and complicated state game management process, Jacob Mannix asked the department for guidance to identify the proper tools in the toolbox. Gorn said transitioning to Tier 1 or other hunts would only address who gets the permit, but he said, the question at hand is what options exist to harvest more animals. And for that, he said, there is room under Tier 2 to make changes, for example, evaluating a cow hunt and increased bull hunts.
AC member Kevin Knowlton made the motion to draft a letter to the board of game or even the ADF&G commissioner with the recommendation of a yet-to-be-determined menu of solutions. Lean said that the advisory panel has limited clout but exists to affect policy, not regulations. The advisory panel voted unanimously to develop such a letter and have a draft ready within a few weeks.