By Arctic Wild Co-Owner and Guide Michael Wald
Alaska’s muskoxen populations have fluctuated widely in the last century. Having been hunted into oblivion for meat to feed whaling crews, they were nonexistent in the State from 1900 until reintroduction in Southwest Alaska in 1935. All of Alaska’s some 4000 muskox are descended from 31 transplants, and the population is growing in numbers and in range. Those of us guiding in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have been able to watch a more recent change for these magnificent herbivores. During the late 1990s and up until 2004, we saw muskox on almost every river trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Locals tell us that in October of 2005 an ice storm sealed the tundra vegetation under 3 inches of ice and that muskoxen were unable to feed. Some animals perished but many of these heavily furred stocky animals migrated to areas with better access to food. Coincidentally during the early 1990s, grizzly bears which had previously preyed upon muskox only rarely, “discovered” that they were a highly palatable prey item. One observer saw a bear defending a large pile of muskox that it had apparently just killed. Why bears hadn’t previously hunted them, we don’t understand. Nor do we have any idea how bears across the arctic slope have learned this behavior from each other. It is just another of the arctic’s endless mysteries. Despite being shot at, transplanted, iced-out, and slaughtered by bears muskox are surviving and even thriving across arctic Alaska and we see these exceptional creatures on many of our trips. Particularly good trips to see Muskox include the Kokolik, and now that they are rebounding in the Arctic Refuge we often see them on the Canning River too.