Alaska state wildlife officials announced recently that a special subsistence hunt of muskoxen near Nome has been authorized because a few rogue bulls from the regional wild population of about 150 animals are wandering near and even into town, attacking residents and pets. Normally shy, muskoxen have historically avoided human contact, but some bold individuals may move closer to populated areas to seek protection from predatory wolves and bears.
I participated in the first legal hunt of a muskox in Alaska in fall 1975 after the state legislature authorized hunting older bulls — at first only from the herd on Nunivak Island in the Bering Strait. The herd numbered about 700 animals, and there were concerns of overpopulation.
I accompanied the first permittee, a refrigerator salesman from Anchorage, as a reporter and photographer. At the time, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game managed the muskox herd on Nunivak, sharing jurisdiction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the habitat as part of a national wildlife reserve.
While circumnavigating the island in an outboard craft resembling a Boston Whaler, the hunter, guide and I spotted a small herd near the shoreline. We disembarked and after stalking the herd for about an hour, (it moved restlessly in and out of range), our hunter singled out a healthy specimen with a rich, glossy coat. Our Native guide confirmed it was a bull. The hunter brought it down with a single rifle shot at about 80 or 90 yards. I don’t remember the model or caliber. After quartering the carcass, we loaded it onto the boat and returned to Mekoryuk, the only village on the island. The entire hunt, from portal to portal, took about six hours.
About the same time, starting in the early 1970s, transfers of small family groups of muskoxen to the arctic mainland were undertaken jointly by the state and federal government in hopes of restoring viable herds to their original habitat on the mainland where they had been extirpated by early hunters in the mid-1800s.
The original Nunivak herd of about 35 animals had been brought to Alaska from native herds in Greenland with funding provided by the U.S. Congress. These progenitors of today’s muskoxen were initially taken to the University of Alaska, where they were preyed upon by black bears, then to predator-free Nunivak Island, where they thrived and multiplied, triggering concerns of overpopulation which could lead to crashes decimating the herd.
In 1969, legislation authorizing hunting fees for muskoxen triggered a furious controversy inside and outside Alaska. Among those vociferously opposed to the hunts were former Gov. Wally Hickel, then President Nixon’s Secretary of the Interior, which held jurisdiction over the muskoxen habitat on Nunivak Island; and an animal husbandry professor from New England named John Teal, an advocate of domesticating muskoxen for the benefit of indigenous folk. Hickel, a non-hunter, belittled muskox hunting and was famously quoted as saying that the animals were so docile, “you could walk up to them and stick a broom handle in their ears,” which makes a delicious if false epigram.
Nevertheless, with the support of key wildlife conservation organizations, the hunts were authorized and have been held annually among both island and mainland herds. The animals now number in the thousands and are one of Alaska’s great conservation success stories. However, more recently, there are growing indications that the overall Alaska muskoxen population may be shrinking, probably due to increased hunting and predator pressure.
Among other things, muskoxen provide an alternative source of protein for subsistence hunters’ families and generate a small industry and economy among Alaska Native guides. Muskoxen are also valued for their fine inner wool called qiviut, which supports a cottage industry of spinners and weavers.
Joe LaRocca worked as a newsman in Alaska for 20 year and is the author of “Alaska Agonistes: The Age of Petroleum — How Big Oil Bought Alaska.” He covered muskoxen issues throughout his Alaska residency and beyond. He now lives in his hometown of North East (Erie County), PA.