Nome community members voice concerns over musk oxen population

NOME, Alaska (KTUU) – On December 13, Curtis Worland was killed by a musk ox while defending a doghouse on his property. Community members in Nome have responded to the issue by voicing their concerns about the area’s musk ox population.

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

Musich created a dossier entitled “Reform for Rural Alaskan Musk Ox Management” with colleague Sara Schwartz after her friend Worland was killed. Musich’s document features photos and testimonies of other Nome residents describing their encounters with musk oxen. Alongside the testimonies are letters of support from community members, including the Nome Kennel Club.

“I’d like the state to fund a volunteer group, maybe led 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 from populated areas,” Musich said.

In addition to Musich’s personal wishes, the dossier contains several solution ideas, such as These include issuing an emergency order to reduce the number of muskoxen on the city limits, providing resources for non-lethal herding routes, and opening up more opportunities for muskoxen hunting in the area.

Associate biology professor Claudia Ihl, who works at the Northwest campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has some ideas as to why musk oxen come to settled areas.

“What I’ve found is that all of the human activity in the city — mining in particular — creates a habitat that’s good for musk oxen because mining disturbs the soil,” Ihl said. “And then when it grows back, it has a lot of the early successional stages of plants — you know, young willows, later in the summer fireweed — and mostly grasses.”

Ihl said grasses are particularly attractive to muskoxen, and miners often plant grass seed after they’ve finished mining at a specific spot — creating the perfect feeding ground for muskoxen. According to Ihl, herds in the city have been coming through nome for about a decade now, meaning most musk oxen in the herd have been getting through since they were calves and dangerously used to human activity.

While Ihl is open to discussion about how the community is treating the musk oxen within the city limits, he also says that people should get a handle on their expectations of the animals and be aware that the land around Nome is an ideal habitat for musk ox is. Ihl recommends mining operations to stop the practice of seeding disturbed lands to prevent future dangerous encounters, which winter soil conditions can make even more dangerous.

“In snow conditions like this, you can’t just walk them around like you can in summer. Musk oxen just can’t move through deep snow, they can’t handle deep snow. And if you put pressure on them by trying to drive them away, they can’t. You can’t move,” Ihl said.

Ihl also attributed their slow speed in winter to their need to conserve energy and their lack of ability to propel themselves in deep snow. These frustrations could cause the animals to act hostile when they feel trapped.

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

It’s important to take this into account when moving a herd, Ihl says, to avoid accidents.

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