The musk ox are back in town
Springtime brings green grass and tender shoots and not far behind are the herbivores that eat those good green things. One of those herbivores is the musk ox, a survivor from Pleistocene, the last ice age. Known to scientists as Ovibos moschatus, the musk ox was hunted out of Alaska by the 1920s. It had already disappeared from Europe in the mid-1800s. They were re-introduced to Alaska in 1930 with 34 animals being brought from Greenland to Fairbanks. Once the Fairbanks group was doing well they were transferred to Nunivak Island. By 1968 the herd had increased to 750 animals. From this group new herds were created on the Seward Peninsula, on Cape Thompson west of Kotzebue, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on Wrangel Island and on the Taimyr Peninsula in Russia. And because it’s springtime it’s possible one of those animals is on your front lawn right now.
The arrival of the musk ox into the outer fringes of urban Nome is not universally celebrated. The sturdy and stubborn animals resist control by humans. “They don’t have the same sorts of defensive response that moose and caribou do,” said Bill Dunker, area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Moose and caribou when they perceive a threat, they break and run. Musk ox are almost the exact opposite in that when they perceive a threat their initial response is to group together and hold their ground.” Conflicts between people and musk ox do occur. Conflicts between musk oxen and dogs have been fatal and in the past few years there have been several such incidents of sled dogs and pet dogs being killed or injured by musk oxen.
“As far as dog safety is concerned if you have to leave your dog outside for an extended period of time our recommendation is to keep them inside a securely anchored chain link enclosure to prevent any sort of encounters that might transpire,” said Dunker. “When people are recreating it’s important to keep the dog on a leash and under control because it’s important they don’t go running off chasing after musk ox. Those are circumstances that are entirely avoidable that can turn bad.”
Dunker recommends clearing brush away from houses as a way to prevent dangerous encounters with musk oxen. Surprise meetings are bad. General clutter such as Conexes and old vehicles can also result in sudden encounters. “We just want to increase visibility around people’s houses. It’s best to avoid them all together. Give them plenty of space. We’ve got calves that have been hitting the ground since the end of April and we expect that to continue through the month of May and into June. Cows and calves are particularly sensitive at this point and the cows are defensive of the calves. If we disturb those groups we also run the risk of separating the calves from the group or having them be trampled by the adults in the group,” Dunker said. “Later on, beginning in late June, the bulls are in rut and more easily agitated. They’ll be fighting with other bulls and it’s important to give them plenty of space.”
A mature bull is about five feet high at the shoulder and weighs up to 800 lbs. Cows are smaller, weighing up to 500 lbs. During the winter they herd up into groups as large as 75.
In the winter time, the local musk oxen retreat to the hill tops around Nome and are sometimes found near the base of the windmills off the Teller Highway. Once spring comes they break up into harem groups including five to fifteen females and sub-adults under the guidance of a single bull. Males with no cows wander in bachelor groups. Mature cows give birth to single calves between April and June. They weigh around 30 lbs at birth and grow rapidly to as much as 235 lbs in one year.
“We typically survey the population every two years,” said Dunker. “We did not get a census completed this year because of the foul weather we had in late February and March. But at least from the 2015 to 2017 results we know the population was stabilized for the time being.”
It’s not certain why they like human inhabited areas but one theory is it is a strategy to escape predators, particularly bears and wolves. Also, they probably find more nutritious vegetation in areas disturbed by human activity. “We’ve seen that with mining reclamation sites where they’ve planted grasses to stabilize the soils where they seem to key on that new growth when it comes it, especially in the springtime when it comes in,” said Dunker.
On the average 84 musk oxen are harvested each year on the Seward Peninsula.