- Associated Press - Thursday, July 24, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A growing influx of musk oxen in the old gold rush town of Nome has prompted Alaska wildlife officials to open a subsistence hunt early for the large shaggy animals, which have trampled dogs and created traffic hazards.

Officials, however, say only five animals can be killed beginning Aug. 1 because the population in the entire region is shrinking significantly year by year, and the stock must be conserved.

That’s little consolation to some Nome residents, who say the animals have attacked dogs, some fatally. People also have to be on the lookout for the lumbering musk oxen on roads and trails. Adult males can weigh up to 600 pounds.

Resident Mitch Erickson’s wife recently had to chase one of the animals away with her truck after seeing her husband armed with a shovel against two of oxen that were ramming the couple’s dog pen in a subdivision 1 1/2 miles from the main part of town. The other musk oxen ran off.

When Erickson moved to Nome 23 years ago, the oxen were a rare presence.

“You’d be lucky if you saw one on a hill,” he said. “Now you’re lucky if you don’t run into one on a hill.”

Tony Gorn, a Nome-based biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said he doesn’t believe that hunting a few local musk oxen will be a “silver bullet” affecting the distribution of about 150 animals loitering locally. But people had expressed interest in the idea, the animals are available and his agency has the regulatory flexibility to make the change from the usual January opening for that area. Lengthening the season for a limited number of permit holders seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

“There’s little or no risk of overharvesting,” Gorn said.

Brown bears preying on musk oxen likely drove the creatures to the town of 3,600 540 miles northwest of Anchorage starting about five years ago.

There’s been a lull in local oxen activity over the past week, perhaps because bears are focusing on fish right now, Gorn said.

Despite Nome’s reputation as a rowdy frontier town, the musk oxen hunt is nowhere close to a free-for-all.

Rifles are not allowed because of the proximity to town. Hunters can use only shotguns, bows and muzzle-loaders. Inside the city limits, hunting within a half-mile from residential areas is strongly discouraged because of public safety concerns, Police Chief John Papasadora said.

Permit holders, meanwhile, are ready to stock up on a red meat that has more fat than moose and less than beef.

Nome District Attorney John Earthman - among the five people allowed to participate- has hunted musk oxen in the past. He said his family enjoys eating it.

“I think it’s very, very good,” he said, adding musk ox steaks were recently served to some visitors. “They were very happy with them.”

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