Musk ox hunt quota around Nome raised from 9 to 30 animals
State game managers have been under pressure to address the musk ox population around Nome following the deadly goring of Curtis Worland by a musk ox in December. In a bid to reduce the animals’ conflicts with humans, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is making more musk oxen available for harvest around Nome this year.
The quota for a Tier II musk ox hunt in the 22C game management unit, which covers the area around Nome and north along the Kougarok Road, has been increased from nine to 30 animals.
For the 2023 regulatory year, there will be 15 permits available for the inner Nome area and 15 for the outer Nome area. In recent years, the department offered just nine permits—five for the inner Nome area and four permits for the outer Nome area.
For the first time since 2011, the state will also allow female musk oxen to be hunted. Under the new regulations, ten cows can be taken —five in each area.
“This change was made at the request of the Northern Norton Sound Advisory Committee and members of the public to increase musk ox harvest near Nome with the intent to reduce human-musk ox conflict,” ADF&G area biologist Sara Germain told the Nugget. She added that this harvest strategy was implemented specifically “with the intent to increase hunt opportunity near Nome while still allowing for the 22C muskox population to increase, just at a lower rate.”
The dates of the hunting season remain the same, from August 1 to March 15. But those with a Tier II permit don’t hunt in the late summer and fall when musk oxen are in the immediate vicinity of Nome’s residential areas, Germain said. During that time of year, bull musk oxen are in rut and not preferred for take because they don’t taste very good. Game managers hope that changing the bag limit to “any musk ox”, including females, may encourage harvest from August to October.
Germain discussed the change during two recent meetings in Nome—the Seward Peninsula Subsistence Regional Advisory Council meeting, which took place on March 22 and 23, and the Northern Norton Sound Advisory Committee meeting, which occurred on March 30.
Musk ox herds have become a more common sight in Nome’s residential areas in the last two decades. After years of many attacks on dogs resulting in deaths and injuries, and many close calls with humans, the death of Curtis Worland marked the first time a person was killed by a musk ox in Nome. He was trying to prevent a herd to get too close to his sled dog kennel off the Nome-Teller Highway at the time of the attack on December 13, 2022.
Less than a week after Worland’s death, the Northern Norton Sound Advisory Committee gathered for a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss local fish and wildlife issues and make recommendations to the state. About a dozen members of the public crowded into the small conference room at Northwest Campus or called by phone to ask for changes to musk ox management, testifying about the rise in encounters and fears for public safety.
The committee later wrote to Doug Vincent-Lang, the ADF&G commissioner, saying that it “strongly supports” the public’s request for the state to reconsider its musk ox management policies. The letter, signed by committee chair Charlie Lean, included suggestions like reducing the herd size through allowing limited female harvest, issuing more permits for the local hunt and more evenly distributing the harvest over the musk ox hunting season.
But when the Northern Norton Sound Advisory Committee met again for a work session last week, some members voiced concern about the potential impacts of the new regulations.
A ‘recipe for collapse’?
“We’re talking about raising the limit by 21 animals in this little, tiny area,” said committee member Tom Gray. “I hope you have a plan, because if you don’t, you’re gonna ruin this area. All of us are excellent hunters, and we’re gonna wipe the bulls out.”
“This went much further than I thought it would. I agree with Tom, that this is a recipe for collapse,” added Charlie Lean.
Committee member Brandon Ahmasuk spoke of the precedent of cow hunts as deterrents, citing other animal populations.
“They’re apples and oranges, but the cow moose hunt that took place, in my opinion, led us to where we’re at today with the moose population,” Ahmasuk said. “If we start hunting cow musk ox, is it going to go that way? It’s my understanding from what I’ve heard from other hunters at least with the moose, [the animals] remember that, and they don’t ever want to come back. Maybe that’s the solution for around Nome, I don’t know. But I’ve heard from other hunters that wherever those cow hunts were for moose, they never come back, or they’ve very slowly come back.”
Committee member Jacob Mannix worried that the cow hunt for musk ox would not be targeted enough.
“If the intent is to use hunting pressure to deter musk ox presence, I think it needs to be restricted to a certain timeframe,” Mannix said. “We’re not going to do anything to deter musk ox presence if we’re shooting cows in March.”
May 1 is the deadline to submit proposals to Alaska’s Board of Game requesting changes to hunting and trapping regulations in game management unit 22 and several others in the state. Mannix told his fellow committee members that he may submit a few of his own proposals related to musk ox management. One of those would suggest that the state establish a cow hunt with a limit of six animals—two for August, two for September and two for October.
Hunters in the inner portion of 22C are only allowed to take a musk ox by bow and arrow, muzzleloader or shotgun, which has been another gripe. Mannix said that from his house in Dexter, he can see musk oxen across the Nome River, two and a half miles away. A hunter could shoot a moose or bear in that area with whatever rifle they want.
“I would definitely entertain a proposal for redrawing of the boundaries for that weapons restriction as well,” he said.
Mannix was also considering submitting a proposal for a multi-year bag limit so that a hunter who is awarded a permit would only be able to take a musk ox every two years.
“I would see it as potentially doubling the number of people that can benefit from this resource, and I think that that would go a long way towards increasing people’s appreciation of having these animals on the landscape, not seeing them just as a nuisance,” Mannix said.
The musk ox hunt in 22C is a Tier 2 subsistence hunt, which is reserved for Alaska residents and is held when there is not enough game to satisfy all subsistence needs. Permit applicants are ranked by their dependence on the animal, their access to other resources and their cost of living. But not everyone who gets a permit successfully hunts a muskox, which was a frustration that committee member Drew McCann brought up.
“There’s only a limited number of permits, and consistently harvest is 62 percent on average over those five years,” McCann said.
Gray also argued that if the musk ox hunt is expanded in the Seward Peninsula, game managers should consider subsistence users in villages, not just those in Nome.
“If we’re going to reevaluate and readjust this thing, I have sympathy for the villages, and I’m all about managing the resource, not my opportunity to kill an animal,” Gray said.
Musk oxen, which were reintroduced to the Seward Peninsula in the 1970s, peaked in population in 2010, with about 2,900 animals. Then, due to an increase in harvest rates, the population dropped to about 2,200. ADF&G completed its most recent survey of the musk ox population in 2021, counting about 2,071 musk oxen throughout the region. While the population numbers have remained relatively flat for the last decade, the animals have expanded their range. They are now found around Unalakleet and Shaktoolik and even in game management unit 21D, Germain said.
ADF&G’s management goal is to have about 40 mature bulls per 100 cows. The current estimated ratio is 38 mature bulls per 100 cows, which, Germain said, is “pretty much right where we want them at our current harvest rates.” ADF&G intends to conduct its next survey of the population in the spring of 2024. That survey will help game managers reevaluate and assess the effects of this year’s increased harvest, Germain said.
During the advisory committee meeting, Mannix noted that hunting quotas are just one aspect of musk ox management.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect all the burden of managing animals to be placed on Fish and Game and I don’t think that it’s reasonable to expect that increasing hunting is simply going to fix this problem—it’s one part,” Mannix said. “If the community of Nome would like to get serious about addressing this issue, then it needs to be a multi-stakeholder, more nuanced approach that brings more people to the table. Otherwise, we will just shoot ourselves out of a huntable population of musk ox.”
Soon after Worland’s death, Nome residents Miranda Musich and Sarah Swartz formed a group called RRAMM, or Reform for Rural Alaskan Muskox Management. They collected testimonies about conflicts with musk oxen, and now Musich said she has been focused on making state and federal legislators aware of the issue.
“It’s one thing to hear about it in the news—what happened to Curtis—but it’s another thing to understand how the musk oxen are negatively impacting thousands of people in this region,” Musich said. “I’m trying to plant the idea that we need to have some sort of better emergency response in dealing with musk oxen at the time that they’re being an active nuisance or threat.”
Musich thinks there could be more resources for either the Nome Police Department or a trained team from the community that would be able to respond to musk ox problems. She used to be a dispatcher and saw firsthand how wildlife conflicts were dealt with in other regions in Alaska. She thinks that ideally a group of people would respond to a musk ox situation. “Armed or not…people should not be dealing with it alone,” she said.
Under state regulations, a “Defense of Life and Property,” or DLP, killing is justified in an emergency if the person didn’t harass or provoke the animal. Musich thinks these situations are more straightforward if a lone moose or bear is charging somebody, but when musk oxen pose a threat, they are often in a herd.
“Every time we have issues with them, it’s always herds, so we’re looking at six to eight animals,” Musich said. “If you have six of them trying to break down your fencing to get into your horse field or to attack your dogs, how do you justify DLP at that point? Do we just shoot one and then wait and see what happens? If they’re still coming, do we shoot another one? There’s not really any clear answers to that, and I think that is part of what worries people so much.”
Nome is one of the few places where humans live alongside musk oxen, and that fraught co-existence is only a few decades old. Germain said there are no peer-reviewed publications on deterring musk ox herds out of residential areas. But ADF&G staff in Nome, who have spent a great deal of time trying different hazing methods, have found that the best way to keep the animals out of an area long-term is through the use of fencing, she said.
Building a fence that actually works against musk ox herds is expensive, Musich said. She wondered if there might be funding available at the state or federal level to help reduce the financial burden.
“Ultimately, I am a firm believer that if we don’t allow them to get comfortable around populated areas, then they will not want to stick around,” she said.
Correction: A correction was made on April 7 to reflect the following change: "Mannix said that from his house in Dexter, he can see musk oxen across the Nome River, two and a half miles away. A hunter could shoot a moose or bear in that area with whatever rifle they want."