The Last of Its Kind
An encounter with musk oxen reminds one writer of nature's flux, and mankind's influence on it.
The following was excerpted from:
Wild Moments: Adventures With Animals of the North
Edited by Michael Engelhard
University of Alaska Press, 248 pages, $21.95, © 2008
Eyes watering in a breeze that snatched its sting from the pack ice, I scan the coastal plain for signs of life. My binoculars frame horizon segments blurred by the midsummer sun, a mindbender like Prudhoe Bay’s gas flares, which gyrate above industrial installations 150 miles to the west. A liquid glare melds earth and sky. Distant “lakes” separate then coalesce, dissolving terra firma into quicksilver, a landscape of uncertainties. When polar fronts straddle warm ground, light flexes into mirages like this, supple and transient as tundra denizens. More than other places perhaps, and not without irony, the continent’s northern fringe suggests limits; its luminous emptiness unmoors assumptions, urging us to reconsider the scale of things, their importance, and beyond that, the scope of our ambitions.
I focus on a boulder pair adrift amongst tussocks on this inland sea. Changing position ever so slightly, the mounds look too bulky to be grizzlies as well as the wrong shade of brown. Propelled by a “Forward, hard!” our blue rubber raft scrapes across gravel, its blunt snout nuzzling shore. Ravines and willow clusters downwind from two grazing musk oxen allow us to sneak up on them single-file and hunched over in an effort to reduce our silhouettes, to appear small and non-threatening. Screened by topography as much as by the animals’ poor eyesight we pause frequently, considering how far we should push our luck. The jingling of digital cameras alone could invite an attack. We also don’t want to harass the roaming haystacks; it is their refuge after all, though we need it just as badly.
One hundred yards. Fifty. The bulls raise their prizefighter heads, sampling the wind. The dark masses seem to draw sunlight, to collect gravity like black holes on the hoof. We freeze. Catching sight of us, they neither charge nor turn tails but step away, nimble as dancers despite their weight, the hemlines on their wool skirts trim and swaying in sync with dainty white-stockinged feet.
When musk oxen feel threatened they circle or line up in front of their calves like armored cars on a parade ground, a reaction honed through millennia of skirmishes with bears and wolves. An alpha bull may break rank without advance notice. Taut as a spring, he will launch from a wall of fur, horns, and bossed foreheads, ready to gore or throw any intruder. (Incredibly, one rutting bull lunged at a low-flying airplane in an attempt to hook the landing gear.) While a circling-the-wagons instinct served musk oxen well before the advent of humans, it contributed to their decline throughout Alaska before the mid-1800s. For centuries Inuit hunters had used dogs in pursuit of fleeing herds, forcing oominqmak—the Bearded Ones—to align within range of arrows or spears. Yankee whalers wintering in the western Canadian Arctic and traders who provisioned them with meat or skins used rifles instead, felling animals one at a time at long distance. Whole kin groups faced death bisonlike, with the composure of statues. Expeditions wanting live specimens for zoos had to annihilate parental bulwarks before they could capture the calves sheltered behind them. Tied closer to sparse rangelands, with large bodies harder to sustain, musk oxen have always been less numerous than caribou. During the Pleistocene, herds flowed back and forth across much of the ice-free interior, western, and all of northern Alaska, contemporary with mammoths and mastodons; but climate changes during the Holocene probably hastened the erstwhile demise of a species sculpted by glaciers and wind.
Trying to restore the region’s biodiversity, the federal government imported 34 musk oxen from Greenland in 1930. By ship and by train, the transplants arrived in Fairbanks. Five years later, 31 animals were crated then barged to Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea, where they prospered. In 1969 and 1970, Nunivak musk oxen were shipped to northern Alaska, including 63 animals that laid the foundation for a herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the state’s contested northeastern corner. Upon their release, several confused musk oxen wandered onto the sea ice, but Eskimo herders on snowmachines pushed them back to shore. The new herd grew and dispersed for the next fifteen years, expanding their range as far west as Prudhoe Bay. In 1986 the refuge population peaked, numbering close to 400 animals.
To everybody’s surprise, a 2006 survey of traditional musk ox habitat north of the Continental Divide came up short. Although musk oxen can be difficult to spot from the air and some may have been overlooked, their numbers were down everywhere, and pilots counted only a single animal within the refuge boundaries. It is easy to imagine this loner as one of the two shag piles our boat crew approached on the Aichilik River, which unbeknownst to us then could have been the entire herd.
A layer of guard hairs on top of luxurious underwool known as qiviut will keep musk oxen cozy at 40 below. Qiviut’s density and insulation value—seven times that of sheep wool—are directly related to the animal’s defense tactics; if, like caribou, musk oxen were to bolt from their enemies instead of bunching up, they would quickly overheat. Though not quite as precious as gold, qiviut is as coveted: two ounces of the gossamer yarn—a ball the size of a small grapefruit—sell for a hundred dollars or more. With a yield of up to four pounds per hide, pressure from subsistence hunters could easily have played a role in the decline, at least until 2006, when musk ox hunting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was suspended.
Regardless of its legendary fleece, biologists believed that the refuge’s last musk ox would not survive another winter.
What triggered this downward slide of a species that weathered far-flung glaciation? Poaching? A mysterious disease? Toxins in the water or soil?
Residents of Kaktovik, an Inupiaq village nestled against the Arctic Ocean’s blue sweep, increasingly comment on erratic weather, which may afflict musk oxen. Colder springs delay breakup season, preserving snow sumps deep enough to stop even 900-pound bulls. Untimely thaw-freeze episodes encase grasses and sedges under an ice crust too thick to be cracked by hooves. Malnourished cows may give birth to weak calves, or leave in search of greener pastures in the Brooks Range or Canada. Not too long ago, thirteen musk oxen drowned in a flood on the Colville River west of the refuge; others got stranded on raw barrier islands where they pawed sand for sustenance and starved to death after the sea ice melted, mingling their bones with bleached driftwood.
Perhaps more disturbing to people who view wilderness as simply another theme park or Garden of Eden, some North Slope grizzlies figured out how to breach musk ox formations. Since 1998, refuge biologists have found evidence of bears killing between two and six musk oxen from different groups, sometimes without utilizing all the meat. Gradually, grizzlies perfected their hunting technique: avoiding curved-dagger horns, they bite behind shoulder humps where life runs close to the surface, severing their prey’s spinal cord. Not all bears became experts, however; a few have been wounded—at least one even mortally—battling the North’s largest land mammals.
Although they are rare, multiple or “surplus killings” have been recorded for species ranging from spiders to orcas. Most cases occur when risk-and-effort scales tip to favor the predator, while environmental or genetic disadvantages—weather, starvation, disease, or deformity—weigh in against prey. The proverbial blood lust of the fox in the henhouse may be nothing but a projection of human proclivities, an assignment of irrationality to creatures that cannot object. Evolutionary progress, the fine-tuning of survival, seems to drive animal surplus killing. In a land of feast and famine it makes sense for bears as it does for people to stockpile whenever they can. Though they may take the occasional caribou calf, barrenlands grizzlies scrape the barrel’s bottom while their southern cousins fatten up on salmon. (Musk oxen do thrive in places where bears are absent or find abundant and diverse food.) More importantly, nature urges all beings to realize their full potential. Surplus killing refines instincts. It polishes reflexes. It calibrates skills. Much pleasure springs from physical mastery, from the deft pitting of bodies against each other and of wits against world—any athlete, hunter, wild child, or animal intuits this.
Evolution never tires of new designs. Congruent with science, many Eskimo elders believe that wolves created caribou and vice versa. The same selective pressure keeps working on musk oxen and bears: in the keen presence of each other, both become faster, stronger, smarter, more alert, more enduring, or else drop from the race. Species are not fixed, yet rarely do we get to witness their changing. At times, gene flows stagnate before drying up; at other times, they merge, gain momentum, and animate bastard forms. A recent Arctic example comes in the form of hybrid bears.
Last spring, a trophy hunter accompanied by a guide killed an animal on Banks Island, Canada that resembled a polar bear with soiled fur and sooty rings around the eyes. Closer inspection also revealed long brown claws, a dish-shaped snout, and humped back—all typical grizzly bear features. At 7.5 feet, this bear was much shorter than the average polar bear but showed the small head suited to hunting seals through holes in the ice. DNA tests confirmed the unique animal to be the offspring of a polar bear sow and a grizzly boar. While both species have produced fertile cubs in zoos, crossbreeding has never before been documented in wild populations.
According to biologists, polar bears branched off from grizzlies that ventured onto the frozen ocean to stalk marine mammals. Shrinking sea ice may now force polar bears to adopt landlubber ways; platinum-blond seal hunters are reconnecting with their bruin cousins, which in turn travel farther north and can be seen feasting on whale carcasses in polar bear company.*
What should we call such crossovers? Grolar bears? Pizzlies? How will we pigeonhole a rapidly shifting world? The dilemma runs deeper, though, than mere problems with taxonomy.
Like hybrid bears, the last musk ox topples notions of ecosystem stability, a cornerstone of theories that satisfy our cravings for harmony, permanence, smooth functionality. It compels us to accept extinction, to refrain from fixing what is not broken but also to ask ourselves if our hands truly are clean. It raises questions that cut close to the bone. Can we embrace Nature unruly, Nature in flux? Is human-caused local extinction, the muting of voices in a landscape’s register, less lamentable than its global counterpart? And ultimately: do we dare reassess our responses to environmental threats, or are we bull-headed enough to repeat destructive behavior ad finitum?
Outlining a philosophy of sound land management, Aldo Leopold cautioned that we preserve every cog and wheel—and by implication complete workshops—when tinkering. The realization that we don’t even hold all the blueprints or fully grasp the interlocking of parts can be as humbling as a face-to-face encounter with Ice Age beasts.
* In the spring of 2008, Alaska Native hunters killed a polar bear near Ft. Yukon, 250 miles south of the Beaufort Sea. It was the longest recorded inland journey by an Alaskan polar bear. Normally at that time of year, the animals would be foraging on the sea ice.
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