Some in the remote Bering Sea community of Nome, Alaska, long feared the consequences of inviting the muskox into town, and their worst fears became a reality this week.
A herd of the 600- to 800-pound prehistoric animals that trace their heritage back to the Ice Age are reported to have attacked and killed 36-year-old dog musher Curtis Worland as he tried to drive them away from a family dog kennel where a dog was seriously injured two years ago.
At that time, the Nome Nugget reported a “musk ox had broken through the fence surrounding the dog lot” along the Nome-Teller Highway on the outskirts of the famous, historic gold mining town about 540 miles northwest of Anchorage and gored a seven-year-old husky named Missy.
She was subsequently flown to Anchorage and spent three hours in surgery, but survived. A dog belonging to musher Rolland Trowbridge was not so lucky in 2015. A muskox gored it to death.
“A sight grimly familiar to Nome dog owners returned…with the fatal goring of a local musher’s dog by a bull musk ox,” KNOM reporter Matthew Smith wrote at that time….It’s the first fatal clash between musk oxen and Nome residents or animals so far this summer. That’s a far cry from the multiple gorings and dog fatalities seen last year.”
By then, mushers had already begun fencing their kennels to try to keep the muskox away from the dogs, and when that didn’t work, as was the case at the Worland’s two years ago, they took to herding them away with four-wheelers or “hazing” them by banging pans, fire warning shots or firecracker shells, or otherwise raising a ruckus.
Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.
When the noisemaking failed in 2014, then 59-year-old Diana Adams shot and killed the muskox attacking her dogs and was charged by Alaska State Wildlife Troopers with the illegal taking of a game animal. Alaska has a defense of life and property law – DLP as it is commonly called – that allows the killing of any animal as a matter of necessity if “all other practicable means to protect life and property are exhausted before the game is taken.”
Other mushers said this week that the charges brought against Adams cast a pall over the idea of using lethal means to protect one’s dogs. Trowbridge did shoot the muskox that killed his dog, but not until after it had already mauled another dog.
He then reported the shooting to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which backed the action up as “justifiable” before the state Department of Public Safety could get involved. Public Safety is the state agency charged with enforcing fish and wildlife laws while Fish and Game is the agency charged with writing them.
Worland, ironically, was a Public Safety employee who neighbors said regularly helped drive muskox away from their kennels. Driving muskox is what he appears to have been doing on Tuesday when he was killed, but no one knows exactly what happened because he was alone on his lunch break when attacked.
Nome Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Departments Chief Jim West Jr. told the Nugget that it appeared West ran home on his snowmachine around noon. It was found near his dog kennel with his body some distance away.
An empty, semi-automatic handgun was found near Worland’s side, and West said that the man appeared to have suffered a significant wound to his femoral artery, the major artery supplying the lower body. It is one of several arteries the Stop the Bleed campaign says can cause death in three to five minutes.
Troopers on Friday issued a statement saying that “the muskox’s horns produced a fatal injury. During the attack, CSO Worland discharged his duty weapon – a Glock 22, .40-caliber handgun – multiple times.
“The Alaska Department of Fish and Game in coordination with the Alaska Wildlife Troopers have determined that the muskox that attacked CSO Worland is a public safety threat to the community, and it will be dispatched once located. Efforts to find the muskox are ongoing….”
Worland neighbor, friend and veteran Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Aaron Burmeister said that when attacked, Worland didn’t appear to have been doing anything different than what he had done many, many times.
Worland regularly helped other dog owners drive muskox out of their yards and “was very experienced at what he was doing,” said Burmeister, who described Worland as one of the nicest guys in Nome.
“He was always a gentleman,” Burmeister said, “even in dealing with the worst felons.”
“Curtis was such a nice man,” Adams added. “He was always willing to help us move muskox. He was always helpful.”
But Adams also noted how the situation between humans and muskox changed over the years in Nome as the animals became increasingly habituated.
“There are whole generations of muskox that have grown up here now,” Burmeister added. They have learned they are protected from predators both human and wild when in Nome or close to it, and as a result, the more than 100 that regularly hang out around the community of 3,600 people have largely lost any fear of humans.
“In the early years, when it was 10-12 years ago, we used to go out on foot,” Adams said. “Now they don’t even respond to having blanks fired at them.”
Adams said that in the lead-up to her problems in 2014, she had 22 muskox in her yard. She managed, she said, to herd them away with the use of her truck, put her dogs in a fenced pen, and then went into her home to make some phone calls.
She was on the phone, she said, when she noticed the animals had returned.
Afraid for her dogs, she grabbed a 20-gauge shotgun and stuffed two rounds of birdshot and two slugs in the magazine before heading out the door. There she met two muskox, one of which was almost under her porch. She fired a round of birdshot in the air.
Both of the animals bolted at that and started to cross the road, she said, but then turned and returned.
“One stopped when she saw the dogs, and then walked into the dog yard,” Adams said. “That scared me more than if he had run over there. He just calmly walked over.”
When the muskox got nose-to-nose with one of the dogs and then dipped its head, putting its horns within spearing distance, Adams put a slug in its chest.
“She spun, and I shot it again,” Adams added. At that point, the musk ox ran out of the yard and died. Adams notified authorities of the shooting, but then – according to others in Nome – made the mistake of telling a trooper that “I wasn’t afraid for my life; I had a shotgun in my hands.”
It was apparently this comment which led the trooper to make the decision the state DLP law didn’t apply to the shooting and to charge Adams with a crime.
“I was on the hook for a $10,000 fine” and possibly jail time, Adams said, though the case didn’t go far. She hired an attorney, which cost her $1,500, and the Nome District Attorney proved reluctant to prosecute. Then, 10 days after the shooting, there was another incident and a dog died.
“After that, (the trooper) changed the citation to a warning,” Adams said. The case against her disappeared, but the message had been sent that shooting muskox in the city would not be readily tolerated.
“In the end, I never went to court,” Adams said, “and I regret that. I wanted it established this was a good DLP.”
Dealing with musk-ox, she added, is not like dealing with the moose or bears common in many Alaska communities, even Anchorage. Moose and bears are generally found alone or in groups of two to four at most. Musk-ox arrive in herds.
“It’s not like you’re dealing with one animal,” Adams said. There is a herd to be dealt with, and when many in the herd have become conditioned to the idea they can ignore humans as a serious threat, they often don’t respond to harassment.
This can create dangerous and/or deadly problems when any sort of big-game animal is involved.
Adams admitted she also finds the muskox situation a little odd in Nome given that elsewhere in Northwest Alaska muskox that wandersinto town are promptly shot as a nuisance or for food. Nome, on the other hand, has up until now embraced the animals once near extinct in the 49th state and prompted them as a “wildlife viewing” opportunity.
Because of this, Adams said, the animals have become so comfortable in town that “people are even afraid to let their children out to play.”
There are no readily available records of past muskox-caused fatalities in Alaska, but records on wildlife-caused deaths were not well kept in territorial or early Statehood days. Troopers said that Worland’s death has been ruled “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. 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.”