And Then There Were 84,000

The return of musk-oxen to Canada´s Banks Island in recent decades is just one chapter of a beguiling Arctic mystery

  • Ed Struzik
  • Jan 01, 2000
When Canadian Biologists Tom Manning and Andrew Macpherson set out to spend the spring and summer of 1952 surveying the wildlife of Banks Island, they didn´t expect to find musk-oxen. Although the shaggy mammals had once inhabited the High Arctic island, they had been presumed nearly extinct there since around the turn of the century. So it was with some excitement that Macpherson one day saw a "black dot in the distance." He recalls, "I had it in my sights for quite some time before I said anything. Then I told Tom, ´I think I see a musk-ox out there!´"

The animal, which they determined was a bull, was the only musk-ox they saw during their expedition. No one will ever know if it was alone. What is certain, though, is that in the years that followed, musk-ox numbers steadily increased on the island, which is slightly smaller than the state of Maine and about 1,600 miles directly north of the state of Washington.

In 1961, a biologist counted 100 musk-oxen on Banks. Six years later, another biologist counted 800, and three years after that, the first aerial survey of the island suggested there might be as many as 1,800. By 1994, the numbers had exploded to the highest count ever: From the air over Banks Island, Northwest Territories biologist John Nagy estimated there were 84,000 of the animals­­half of all of the musk-oxen in the world at the time. "Pretty much everywhere we flew, there were musk-oxen," says Nagy. "I don´t recall any part of the island where we didn´t see animals. It was quite the experience." In the most recent estimate, two years ago, the number was down to 58,000, a significant decrease but still a robust number.

Of all the unsolved mysteries of the Arctic, the fall and rise of musk-oxen on Banks Island is one of the most beguiling. Scientists disagree both about why the animals disappeared on Banks and why the species has experienced a phenomenal recovery there over the past half century.

"I don´t know that you can compare this to anything else in nature," says Chris Shank, a former Northwest Territories biologist­­and one of the first to look to the archaeological evidence for answers. "And I´m not sure that we´ll ever find out, at least not to the satisfaction of everyone who has been involved." Climate change, unregulated hunting, wolf control, recolonization­­and even the fate of a ship involved in the search for a famous lost expedition more than 150 years ago­­have all figured into the various theories.

Bisonlike in appearance, the hump-shouldered musk-ox looks as if it could have stepped from the distant past, when its ancestors crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia one million years ago. The animal´s huge head, short legs, long coat and sharp horns make it an imposing sight on the treeless tundra, and it can come as a surprise that a typical musk-ox bull stands only 4 feet tall and weighs in at 660 pounds.

Although polar bears and grizzlies have been known occasionally to take down musk-oxen, their main predators are wolves. When confronted by wolves, a herd usually either lines up or forms a defensive circle or crescent, with the young shielded inside. If the musk-oxen don´t panic and stampede, the strategy can be effective­­ unless the wolves lay siege to the herd and eventually succeed in nipping away at the abdominal parts of their prey or in grabbing hold of a musk-ox by the face or neck. Biologists and Inuit hunters arriving on the scenes of fresh wolf kills have found the intestinal tracts of musk-oxen spilling from their bellies. Wolves and grizzlies also sometimes kill by going for the face and throat, often using strangulation, much like the big African cats.

In the face of human weapons, musk-ox defenses are usually futile, even against a poor marksman. That´s not to say musk-oxen are docile around people: Aggressive bulls will bellow at or charge humans when confronted and, on rare occasions, maim or even kill. Still, animals that draw into a circle and then just stand there make for easy targets, and musk-oxen have long nourished the region´s Native cultures.

Even figuring out precisely where musk-oxen fit in the animal kingdom has been a puzzle over the years. Having shot many musk-oxen and tasted the milk of the cows, turn-of-the-century Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup found no evidence of musk and decided to call the animals "polar oxen." The Canadian-born American naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton later suggested that musk-oxen were related to American bison. Taxonomists finally determined that the musk-ox´s closest relative is the golden takin, a goat-antelope of the mountainous regions of southeastern Tibet, northern Burma and western China.

One of the reasons the Banks Island musk-oxen are such an intriguing study is that if Europeans had a role in their demise, it was indirect.

The answer to the mystery of the fluctuating numbers of Banks Island musk-oxen has been more elusive. The clues begin in the nineteenth century, a time when European explorers, whalers and traders were exploiting many of the musk-ox populations of Greenland, Canada and Alaska mercilessly for food and robes. The American explorer Robert Peary had hundreds killed, mostly for dog food, on his attempt to reach the North Pole. British explorers on Melville Island, north of Banks, killed more than 600 between 1852 and 1875. Hudson´s Bay Company purchased more than 12,000 musk-ox robes between 1862 and 1900. Added pressure on the species then came from zoos seeking specimens. It quickly became clear the calves were easiest to transport ­­and that the best way of securing them was to kill all the adults that stood protectively around them.

Complaints about the practice led to a 1917 international agreement ending such large kills. By then, however, the wild musk-oxen of Alaska were long gone, and the Greenland population was in serious peril. While some still existed in Canada, the population was so precarious that the government ordered a hunting ban for all but the Inuit, which remained in effect until 1970. That year, Canada established the Thelon Game Sanctuary in the Keewatin district of the central sub-Arctic as a preserve for the species.

One of the reasons the Banks Island musk-oxen are such an intriguing study is that if Europeans had a role in their demise, it was indirect. The first Europeans to spend time on the island´s shores were the 65 crew members of the HMS Investigator, which stopped there in 1852 only out of necessity. En route from the North Pacific and Alaska in search of the famous 1845 John Franklin expedition that disappeared without a trace, the ship anchored at Bay of God´s Mercy on the island´s northeast coast when ice prevented any further advance.

The men found themselves on Canada´s fifth largest island, a 27,000-mile Arctic wilderness. While the west coast is flat, sandy and often shrouded in fog, most of the remaining shoreline is flanked by sloping hills of gravel, vertical cliffs of sandstone and two-billion-year-old Precambrian rock. Having largely escaped the scouring of the last period of glaciation, parts of the island´s sheltered interior valleys are remarkably lush and temperate during the short summer months. If it were not for the presence of so much Arctic wildlife­­ - including musk-oxen, caribou, wolves, arctic foxes, snowy owls and snow geese - ­­one might mistake the sedge and grass meadows for the sheep country of northern Scotland.

For two years until they were rescued, the Investigator crewmen were compelled to go out hunting nearly every day to augment the ship´s limited supply of canned goods and salt pork. According to the captain´s logs, the hunting parties managed to kill 110 caribou, 169 hares, 186 grouse, 198 ducks and 29 geese. The ship´s surgeon noted the presence of many musk-ox skulls and bones in the areas traveled. But musk-oxen were so scarce that the hunters shot only seven, which came from an over-ice trip to nearby Victoria Island to the west.

In May of 1911, another Canadian-born American naturalist, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, got a hint of what might have happened to Banks Island´s musk-oxen when he came upon the legendary Copper Eskimos of Prince Albert Sound on Victoria Island. These Inuit were among the last to come in contact with the outside world, and given the lighter, European features of some of them, Stefansson mistakenly thought the "Blond Eskimos" were descendants of a colony of Greenlanders that had vanished in the late fifteenth century. Astute as any ethnologist of his time, Stefansson did all he could to find out about these people. Their stories included one about how their immediate ancestors found an abandoned ship on Banks Island. The discovery of the Investigator, with all its wood and metal, Stefansson concluded, must have been a stupendous find in the treeless environment.

When Stefansson explored Banks Island, he too found large numbers of bleached musk-ox bones. They remain on Banks Island today: In the summer of 1974, Canadian biologist Shank and his colleagues counted 581 musk-ox skulls, 29 food caches and 17 tent rings in one location. Others have since counted another 150 similar, but smaller, encampments all the way to the coast where the Investigator either sank or drifted off.

How to interpret these findings is a matter of debate. University of Alberta anthropologist Chris Hickey, who has found traces of softwood lumber at many of the bone sites, concludes that the Copper Inuit pushed the Banks musk-oxen to the brink of extirpation, killing the animals while en route to the Investigator. Their travels apparently took them each spring across the strait that separates the two islands and about 150 miles to the north coast of Banks. Hickey is not alone: Stefansson himself concluded that in their travels over 20 or 30 years to scavenge what they could from the ship, the Copper Eskimos literally drove musk-oxen to extinction on Banks.

But that theory doesn´t explain the experience of the Investigator crew, which found almost no live musk-oxen. "The fact is few musk-oxen were seen by the crew of the Investigator in all that time they spent on the island," points out Shank. "So it is unlikely that only a few years later, the Inuit would have killed hundreds in the same area." And carbon-dating analysis of a dozen musk-ox bones from Banks recently found that 11 of the 12 bones were deposited well before the arrival of the Investigator, most likely some time in the seventeenth century.

But to this day, Hickey doesn´t accept those findings. "The reliability of radiocarbon dating made on specimens that are under 300 years old is very suspect," he says. "You´d have to come up with a lot more evidence than that to convince me."

Biologist Frank Miller may well have an explanation that could bridge both interpretations: forces at work in the natural world. Twice over the past quarter century, the Canadian Wildlife Service scientist has documented catastrophic declines of populations of Peary caribou and musk-oxen on the High Arctic´s Queen Elizabeth Islands. In both cases, climatic conditions that may be due to global warming or to natural fluctuations left most of the islands´ food resources buried under crusts of thick ice and snow, and the animals starved. Perhaps similar changes occurred on Banks Island in the past, with similar results.

Even if that theory offers an answer to the musk-ox´s demise on Banks Island, the species´ recent spectacular return there has surprised scientists. Nagy suggests that the island´s lush vegetation may have attracted and sustained musk-oxen that crossed over ice from other islands. He also points to a recent decline in wolves. "Wolves have been both poisoned and hunted to the point they were either very rare or have disappeared altogether from the island for a considerable length of time," he says. "Without this predator, and with favorable range and climatic conditions, the musk-oxen would have done quite well."

The systematic poisoning and eradication of wolves on Banks got its start in 1955 when the Canadian Wildlife Service decided the predators were responsible for the dearth of musk-oxen on the island as well as the survival of only 300 caribou there. Next came a wolf-reduction campaign to allow the prey animals to recover. No one knows just how many wolves were killed by government scientists or by Inuit hunters who prized wolf pelts for parka trim. But with fewer or no wolves to trim their numbers, both musk-ox and caribou populations evidently did quite well­­ - so well that in the 1970s, the government of the Northwest Territories gave permission to Inuit on Banks Island to commercially harvest a small number of musk-oxen. That practice continues to this day.

Although as many as 2,000 musk-oxen are now killed in a given year, their demise appears to have little effect on the overall population. What´s curious, however, is that while musk-ox numbers have continued to be high, the caribou population on Banks has plummeted from a peak of 12,000 in the mid-1970s to just 500 animals today. Again, an explanation is elusive. But scientists think the answers probably lie in an equation that includes wolves, human hunters, the hunting ban that applied to musk-oxen but not caribou and the way the booming musk-ox population took over unoccupied habitat on the island as well as traditional caribou range.

"Prior to 1994, there were few sightings of wolves on the island," Nagy notes. "But in 1994 and 1998, we counted 47 and 50." That number may now be in the hundreds. "Many predators may not have a big impact on so many musk-oxen, but it puts a lot of pressure on such a small number of caribou," says Nagy. And so the intrigue continues. The government of the Northwest Territories is working on a management plan for the island that may include wolf control. In the meantime, Nagy is trying to determine whether musk-oxen are somehow better equipped than caribou to adapt to the thick buildup of spring snow and ice associated in recent years with climate change. There is evidence, however, that nature may be finally balancing things out. The recent decline to 58,000 musk-oxen on Banks, he thinks, may be reflecting the fact that as lush as the Arctic island is, it has a limited capacity to sustain so many animals.

"I don´t think anyone can say with certainty what´s going to happen in the future," he says. "But what the past 100 years and more on Banks Island have shown us is that High Arctic ecosystems are not as simple as many scientists believe. That said, this has been one heck of a mystery to try and solve."

Edmonton, Alberta, writer Ed Struzik visited Banks Island in 1991 and 1997.

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