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Meet the Neighbors

As their numbers continue to increase in Alaska, muskoxen are turning up in some unexpected places

  • Lisa W. Drew
  • Apr 01, 2002

RON AND LORENA Engstrom like to recall the day a few years ago when they saw a herd of wild muskoxen cross a creek that was roaring with spring meltwater. "Some of the little ones had a hard time in that current," says Ron. "But they followed their mothers and they made it across." Out of the group of more than two dozen animals, just one--an old cow with only one remaining horn--took a different route: She plodded across a nearby bridge. "She was the only one smart enough," says Ron.

The couple, who own a gold-dredging operation 15 miles outside of Nome, Alaska, watched the whole episode from perhaps 40 yards away. They were in their living room.

Most of the world's estimated 165,000-plus muskoxen (often referred to as "musk-ox" whether singular or plural) live far from human habitation. So until about ten years ago, most news of the horned, long-haired mammals came from the scientists who travel to some of the most remote places on Earth to study them. But then an interesting thing happened: The population of muskoxen on western Alaska's Seward Peninsula, which holds the city of Nome and several Native villages, grew by leaps and bounds, with the animals in plain sight of roads and houses. So now there are two main sources of muskox news in the forty-ninth state: biologists and the people living in muskox country who now have front-row seats for observing a species that once grazed alongside mammoths during the Ice Age.

When Ron Engstrom's parents settled in Nome in 1939, muskoxen had just been reintroduced to Alaska by federal authorities after going extinct in the state in the late 1800s. The reasons for the extinction--which may have included hunting pressures, unfavorable climatic conditions and already low population numbers--are still not well understood. The United States imported 34 muskoxen from Greenland in 1930, moving them by ship and train to Fairbanks. All survived the trip. Then 31 were moved to Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea. Between 1967 and 1981, muskoxen were reintroduced back to the Alaska mainland at certain sites, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the state's northeastern corner, Point Hope in the northwestern corner and the Seward Peninsula. All of the estimated 4,000 muskoxen that now inhabit Alaska are descendants of the animals that arrived in 1930.

Photo: © LISA W. DREW
KING OF THE HILL: A lone muskox grazes on a ridge overlooking a settlement on the Seward Peninsula in western Alaska. Until about a decade ago, the species survived only in some of the most remote areas of the forty-ninth state. But in recent years, a population of muskoxen on the peninsula has grown considerably, with the animals now ranging in plain sight of roads and houses. Some of them have even ventured into the city of Nome.

In recent years, the Engstroms have watched muskoxen courting, calving and fending off predators on the hill behind their house. "They calve right there on that slope," says Ron. "They're family animals: They all wait for the calf to get up before they move on." One day a couple of years ago, Ron watched a grizzly approach a group of muskoxen. The herd formed its usual defensive circle with their rumps inside, heads pointed out. The animals didn't just stand their ground, however. "The alpha muskox bull went after that bear, which was a huge old boar," recalls Ron. "The bull just chased that old boar off across the hill."

Perhaps the bull recognized the bear. When muskoxen were first reintroduced in the state, bears seldom encountered the rare herbivores. Then, 15 years ago, as muskoxen numbers were increasing, biologists learned of a documented bear kill of an adult muskox in northeast Alaska. More followed. And three years ago, biologists in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge also began finding evidence of single bears killing more than one muskox from a group. "Grizzly bears have become effective predators of muskoxen in northeastern Alaska," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Pat Reynolds.

It's anyone's guess whether the bears behaved the same way when muskoxen lived in northeastern Alaska before the shaggy animals went extinct in the state. That region was the last holdout for the muskoxen, and their reintroduction in the northeast corner of the state has restored an ecological balance to the Arctic refuge. "An important component of the Arctic fauna has been returned," says Reynolds.

The tallest muskoxen may only come up to the middle of a man's chest, but bulls weigh between 400 and 900 pounds, cows between 350 and 500 pounds. And as anyone who has spent time around the animals can attest, muskoxen don't run away from potential threats. "They just stand there," says Norman Menadelook, manager of the Native store in Teller, an Inupiat village 70 miles from Nome. "Muskox can be a nuisance. They're not scared of people or of dogs. You practically have to drive them away. They could be right in the road."

Adds another Teller resident, Isaac Okleasik, Jr., "When we're picking berries, we've got to go around them. When you see a herd, make a circle, because they aren't going to move." Once a herd interfered with Okleasik's plans to collect gull eggs on an island near Teller. "You couldn't shoo them away," he says. "Every time I got close, the male of the group had his head down and was pawing the ground, picking up sod. I lost the whole day. There were at least 20 eggs out there on that island I didn't get to."

FACE-OFF: During to the fall rut, two bulls butt heads in a clash to determine dominance. Herds of muskoxen are fluid, often breaking up and then reassembling. But during mating season, each group of females forms a harem that usually breeds only with the alpha male. Though the tallest muskoxen may only come up to the middle of a man's chest, bulls can weigh as much as 900 pounds.

Although muskoxen can be a welcome source of subsistence meat, especially when moose numbers are low, the region's Native Alaskans have a mixed reaction to the animals. None of the villagers alive today remembers the animals as being a natural part of the ecosystem. And the reintroduction was the idea of the United States government, not the Natives. "They didn't even ask us," says Okleasik.

One point of contention is whether muskoxen compete for food resources with caribou or reindeer (domestic caribou). That's an important question for Teller residents, some of whom are involved in reindeer herding. Biologists say the two species do not affect each other, but many Natives don't agree. "The muskox eat a whole hill," says Okleasik. "We noticed after we got them here, the reindeer got skinnier." Adds Menadelook, "Reindeer are scared of them; they're so bulky that reindeer think they're bears." Still, says Menadelook, "with the moose population crashing, people are starting to appreciate muskox more. They're good eating, although it takes awhile to get used to the taste."

"They're pretty easy to catch," adds Okleasik, who waits until March, well after the fall rutting season, to hunt muskox. "They stink when you get them in the rut," he says. "In March, they still have fat on them. They have fat in between the meat, just like beef. That's because all they do is eat, move a little ways, eat."

In the middle of winter, however, muskoxen basically fast, finding little more than occasional dried sedges and lichen to eat. "They are adapted to go for months if they have to--sometimes with a minimal amount of food--just living off fat reserves and conserving energy," says Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Kate Persons, who is based in Nome and lives down the road from the Engstroms. "That hill right behind my house had close to 30 muskox on it for three and a half months last winter. The year before, there were 50 up there."

Near the end of last winter, around muskox calving time, Persons discovered a pregnant female muskox carcass (probably killed by a predator) in a gully near the hill behind her house. "I examined the marrow of that cow. It had been on the ridge top for three and a half months, eating virtually nothing," says Persons. "And the marrow was still white and waxy as though it was still depositing fat rather than metabolizing it. It was just astonishing. They're experts at conserving energy."

Like the Engstroms, Persons and her husband Pete Rob, also a biologist, often see muskoxen out the window of their home. They even constructed a muskox viewing tower on top of the house. When deep snow, which the animals can't cope with, isn't isolating the muskoxen on windswept hilltops, they forage all over the open tundra, sometimes wandering onto roads and through backyards. "The best rut we've seen was from our living room window," says Persons.

ARCTIC IMAGE: In Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a bull feeds alone during the region's short summer. The reintroduction of the species to northeastern Alaska helped restore an ecological balance to the refuge. "An important component of the arctic fauna has been returned," observes one biologist.

During the fall rut, males have several tasks. One is to monitor the females by "fleming" them--smelling their rears to see if they are ready for mating. Another is to establish dominance. Herds of muskoxen are fluid and often break up and then reassemble. But basically each group of females is a harem that mates only with one alpha male. In the summer, bulls challenge each other for that position with displays that include pawing the ground, grunting and full-fledged head bashing. "We can hear the sound of horns clashing from our house," says Persons. "It's incredibly loud when they come together."

Persons often hikes up the hill in back of her house to observe the muskoxen. One day last August, she took this writer along as she worked her way to within 100 yards of a herd of about 20 cows and young--the average herd size except in breeding season, when bulls usually can't maintain control of so many cows if other mature bulls are in the area. "Of all the animals I study, these are my favorite, just because they are so incredibly observable," she said as she navigated through and around blueberry bushes, tundra tussocks and remnant patches of snow.

Up on the hill, the dominant bull had positioned himself between the group and four satellite bulls that paced on a ridge top above. The hair on every animal, although long, looked as if it had just been cut to a uniform length. Hidden under a muskox's sleek outer coat is a layer of softer wool called qiviut that they shed each year. "Their hair is so neat and groomed it looks like someone brushes them every day," said Persons.

From some angles, the alpha bull looked for all the world like a lion, his hair ruffling behind his head in the wind like a mane. Two of the satellite bulls faced off, shaking their heads back and forth, pawing the ground and grunting, but stopping short of charging. Two of the other bulls stood at angles to one another. Suddenly one charged straight at the spot 50 yards away where we were sitting, running so fast that his haystack form became a windswept force of streaming hair, horns and big, flashy white feet. "When they run, they just flow over the ground," said Persons.

Muskoxen can achieve speeds as fast as 20 miles per hour in short bursts, but they can't keep it up for very long because they overheat easily. In this instance, the bull wasn't after the human beings on his turf. Instead, he swerved to his right and charged the other bull. "They often charge each other sideways like that," said Persons, adding, "It's time for us to back off."

Ten years ago, she and Rob discovered one of the animals under their house. "It was very unusual to see muskox there," says Persons. At the time, they were living near the Noatak River, northwest of Kotzebue, managing a salmon hatchery. The house was built on stilts above the permafrost. When she and Rob approached to find out why a dog was barking, the muskox charged out, seemingly bent on running them down. But when they moved aside, he ran right past them. "He wasn't really charging us," Persons says. "We were blocking his escape route."

There was no way to know that for sure, however, and no one wants to be on the receiving end of a muskox's horns or flailing feet. When a bull ended up in the Nome cemetery a few years ago, biologists tried to scare it back into the wild so it wouldn't end up hurting anyone. They tried shooting over the animal's head and harassing it with a snow machine. U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Charlie Lean (who then worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game) tried to scare it away with the sound of a chain saw, earning himself the nickname of Chainsaw Charlie. "It didn't move," says Lean. "The more you push, the more they push back." Finally the workers formed a semicircle of blaring snow machines, and the noise drove the animal off after several hours. "It was a long night," he adds.

It was also the exception, not the rule, in the region around Nome. There and in the rest of Alaska, muskoxen almost always run wild in the tundra, not in the streets.

Protecting Arctic Wildlife

The only large mammals that live year-round on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, muskoxen are among the species of wildlife that would be particularly vulnerable to disturbances caused by oil development in this pristine section of northeast Alaska. For nearly two decades, NWF has been providing information to lawmakers and the American public about the threats posed to muskoxen, caribou and other wildlife by development on the refuge's fragile coastal plain. More recently, NWF also initiated a major effort to mobilize opposition to oil drilling in the refuge. For more information, see:

Field editor Lisa W. Drew teaches journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Interior Alaska, where the region's only muskoxen live safely behind a fence at a university research farm.

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