In some ways, the muskox’s very success could be its undoing. It’s not just the uncertain consequences of its lack of genetic diversity, brought on by so many regional extirpations and remarkable rebounds. It’s also, weirdly, the fact that because muskoxen have come back so strongly, they seem to need little help. And we’ve offered so little.
“The recovery of muskoxen was due to muskoxen themselves once the commercial hide market collapsed in the early 1900s. It’s not due to us,” Gunn says.
Among the public, concern over muskoxen comes nowhere near the anxiety over caribou or polar bears, despite the cascading threats they face and their critical place in the Arctic’s biological and cultural life. Gunn calls muskoxen “Canada’s Arctic orphan.”
“There’s nobody trying to market them in the public eye,” she says.
Northerners still value them for horns, bones, hides and qiviut, which are used for art, clothing, tools and trade in the North. And they remain a welcome addition to food security when caribou are not available. But they were gone for so long. And after they returned, their numbers were so low that for several generations, Indigenous Peoples were not allowed to hunt them for food security. So in some communities where they’ve reappeared, the local connection to them has faded.
It’s not just Canada. Take the example of Scandinavia. Fossil records show muskoxen were once common there before they died out 9,000 years ago. (They remained in Greenland, administratively part of Denmark.)So they are, in a deep historical sense, a native European species.
Eight attempts at reintroduction to Scandinavia beginning in 1924 failed miserably. The ninth, in 1953, finally succeeded. Today, muskoxen have a toehold in Scandinavia, with about 244 in a national park in Norway and about 10 in a nature reserve in Sweden. But if the Norwegian animals stray outside their 340-square-kilometre park, they are killed. The reason? The park’s management goal is to prevent muskoxen, and the tourists who come to see them, from disturbing the more prized wild reindeer.
It adds up to complacency, Gunn says. Even disdain. Instead, she recommends keeping a more careful eye on what is happening to them through regular, routine surveys that chart numbers along with age and sex structure within the population — plus,
studies of newborn survival, as in Alaska. One of the main jobs of the biologist is to forecast where the popu- lation is going. It’s hard when you don’t have data.
And we need to get a nuanced assessment from COSEWIC (the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, the independent advisory committee to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change) of how much muskox numbers have fallen, and whether muskoxen — or some populations of them — are at risk.
It is, Gunn avers, the muskoxen’s moment to hit the stage. “The question
is,” she says, “will we let them slip through our fingers again?”
It’s just not clear what the next few decades will bring for this canny survivor. They’ve withstood assault after assault over the eons, barely making it through the climatic gyrations of repeated glaciations, the bloodlust for their pelts, the casual disrespect for their evolutionary genius.
But here’s a prophecy. Perhaps rather than vanishing from the book of life, the muskox will once again surprise us with its resilience. So eccentric, so puzzling, so little understood, maybe it has one final trick up its scruffy sleeve.