Creature Feature: The Prehistoric-Looking Muskox is One Ice Age Relic That's Doing Just Fine

Adult muskoxen huddle up. USFWS photo.

Thanks to a series of translocations that began 80 years ago, herds of prehistoric-looking muskoxen one again roam Alaska’s tundra. Could these shaggy Ice Age survivors be emergent stars of the watchable wildlife world?

The muskox (Ovibos moschatus) -– so-named for the strong musky odor of the mature male animal, which may weigh 800 pounds -- is certainly one of the lesser-known and lesser-viewed animals inhabiting our national parks. It’s not hard to figure out why. Although bison, elk, bears, and other charismatic animals – even caribou and wolves – are routinely viewed from roads, trails, and overlooks in various “watchable wildlife parks” like Yellowstone and Denali, the tundra wilderness haunts of the muskoxen are so remote that only a tiny fraction of the U.S. population can comfortably afford to get there. Too, there aren’t very many muskoxen, especially in relation to the vastness of the tundra wilderness realm they inhabit.

This is not to say that the muskox is rare, and certainly not to say that it is threatened or endangered. In fact, under favorable environmental conditions the muskoxen population can grow so rapidly that annual culling may be needed to prevent the population from increasing to problem levels. (Indeed, that’s been the case on the Seward Peninsula, where light hunting pressure has been cited as the main reason for the dramatic increase in muskoxen numbers during the past quarter-century.)

It wasn’t all that long ago that there wasn’t a single muskox in all of Alaska. As the traditional hunter-gatherer era drew to a close in the Alaskan tundra during the 1800s, it didn’t take long for unrestrained hunting to decimate the muskoxen herds. The instincts and behavioral dispositions that had served the muskoxen so well through the millennia, helping them to outlive the wooly mammoths and other Ice Age megafauna that shared the tundra with them, proved fatal in the age of modern weaponry. Instead of fleeing (and wasting precious energy) when faced with a threat, muskoxen typically stand their ground in a defensive circle, with massive horned bulk facing outward and calves huddled safely inside. While that tactic is a splendid defense against wolves and grizzlies, it plays right into the hands of hunters with high-powered rifles and a need for easy meat.

The extirpation was efficient, relentless, and complete. The death of the last free-roaming Alaskan muskox was not recorded for posterity, but the best evidence is that it happened in 1894 or shortly thereafter.

Truth be said, the muskox is not a keystone species. Its demise did not trigger serious ecosystem disorder, nor did cultural disruption ensue. Another tundra grazer, the caribou, functions pretty much as an ecological equivalent, and is even a preferred food source for subsistence hunters. (Indeed, the latter tend to complain when a surplus of muskoxen in an area tramples too many greens and leaves too little food for caribou.) That said, it remains that the muskoxen’s absence from Alaska was an unnatural thing that begged for correction in due course.

The correction came in the form of a remarkable translocation project that was initiated 80 years ago, primarily for economic and cultural reasons. In May 1930, long before Alaska attained statehood, Congress gave the U.S. Biological Survey $40,000 “to acquire a herd of muskoxen for introduction into Alaska with a view to their domestication and utilization in the Territory.” Incidental benefits of meat and milk aside, muskoxen wool (qiviut) is a highly prized commodity. A single ounce of qiviut brings $40 to $80 on the market today, with some being used to make expensive apparel and accessories.

In August 1930, scant months after Congress had provided the mandate and the monetary means, 34 muskoxen were rounded up in Greenland and shipped to Fairbanks for animal husbandry research, experimentation, and what’s now called “alternative livestock” development. Today the UAF’s Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station, operated by the Institute of Arctic Biology, has the world’s largest research herd of muskoxen (43 animals in 2007). Alaska also has two muskoxen farms, both near Palmer in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. (The world’s only other commercial muskoxen farm, the Continental Muskox Company, is a Canadian operation located near Mountain View, Alberta.)

In 1935-1936, all 31 of the muskoxen on hand at that time were released into the wild on Nunivak, a large island in the Bering Sea near the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. This move was actually motivated by budgetary problems, as there was not enough money to maintain the research herd as planned.

Translocations from Nunivak to the mainland got underway in 1967-1968 and continued until 1981, by which time four separate translocations had moved nearly 230 muskoxen to suitable locations on the adjacent Seward Peninsula and elsewhere in northwestern Alaska.

Visit this Bering Land Bridge National Preserve site to see a very interesting podcast describing the muskoxen translocations. (Dialup users are warned that it’s a pretty big file, nearly 8.5 megs.)

Muskoxen have thrived in Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and other Seward Peninsula locations, and the peninsula’s muskoxen population now stands in the neighborhood of 3,000. Nunivak Island, the original translocation site for free-roaming animals, has about 620. Hundreds more are found in herds of varying size in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Cape Krusenstern National Monument (Igichuk Hills area has ~150), Kobuk Valley National Park, Noatak National Preserve, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, and several other locations in northwestern Alaska.

Whether muskoxen will ever become popular with hard-core watchable wildlife fans is an interesting question. Adventure tourists go to great trouble and expense to see unique sights like the vast herds of the Serengeti, penguins in Antarctica, polar bears on the Hudson Bay shore, and harp seal whitecoats off Newfoundland. Why not muskoxen on the Alaskan tundra? You shouldn’t be surprised at all if this idea generates a lot of buzz one of these days.

If you have a personal hankering to see free-roaming muskoxen, you can travel to any of the places named above and go backpacking, flightseeing, or (in some places) rafting. But if you want to see free-roaming muskoxen the easiest way (note that I didn’t say “inexpensive way”), book a flight for Nome, the main city (pop. 3,750) of the Seward Peninsula. In addition to a decent airport, Nome offers access to that rarest of Alaskan amenities, a lengthy road system that penetrates deep into the tundra wilderness. All you need to do when you get there is to first ask where there are muskoxen hanging out near the road, and then jump in your rental car and go have a look at them. As a no-extra-charge bonus you’ll get to enjoy outstanding birding opportunities and the haunting beauty of the wilderness.

Postscript
: A major plus of muskoxen watching is that these big, stolid animals aren’t afraid of people and don’t run away.