Quick question: what Alaskan animal from the Pleistocene era has the softest hair? The answer may surprise you, but it’s none other than the humble musk ox. This iconic animal left over from the ice age provides qiviut, or a downy undercoat, that is knitted into warm weather clothing, without the itchiness of sheep’s wool.
Having paid a visit to the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer during my trip last week to Anchorage, I had the privilege of getting up close to these magnificent creatures and to learn more about their history in Alaska.
Around the turn of the 20th century, musk ox numbers were dwindling in Alaska, mostly due to over-hunting. A man named John Teal had a vision. He saw the reintroduction of musk ox as a way to not only revive a dying species, but to provide economic opportunities for local and native communities to harvest qiviut. This undertaking of a captive breeding program in Palmer, known as the Musk Ox Project, started in 1954, with the help from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF). UAF, in turn, hosts its Large Animal Research Station, or LARS, to study musk ox, which started in 1974 by Dr. Robert G. White in the model of Teal’s captive breeding program. The earliest effort began in the mid-1930s, during which time 34 musk oxen were transferred from Greenland, brought over to Fairbanks, before being settled in Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea, where their population grew to 750 musk oxen in 1968. Together these efforts, along with release points on the Seward Peninsula and Prudhoe Bay, have made for a successful reintroduction from the brink of extinction. Roughly 4,000 musk ox exist in the wild today, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
In addition to qiviut, which helps keep musk ox warm in the punishing arctic winters, their horns provide a hardy tool for survival. Much like moose, deer, or elk, musk ox go into rut, during which time male musk ox compete annually for dominance over breeding by ramming their heads together. Unlike antlers, these horns have an outer layer, known as the boss, that does not shed. Instead, the boss is attached to the skull, and in this way, musk ox are more closely related to goats. Musk ox can protect themselves from predators thanks to their boss, which I was able to see and handle as a part of the skull of a musk ox. (It’s very heavy!)
Of course, newspapers from a century ago regarded musk ox as sources of meat, which led to their near-extinction in the Territory. Despite their relative scarcity, however, many stories from Alaska’s historic newspapers chronicle hunting trips from visitors from the Lower 48. Several articles point to man named Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an arctic explorer, who advocated an all-meat diet well before the current popularity of high-protein nutritional intake. Stefansson advocated musk oxen in terms of more practical matters of meat for sustenance, yet without a practical plan for captive breeding, musk oxen remained in short supply.
Thanks to the efforts of Teal and all those who helped reintroduce musk ox to Alaska, the population of musk ox today remains stable throughout Alaska. Threats due to climate change are impacting the number of wild musk ox in Nordic countries, which makes these captive breeding programs all the more essential. Just as a fledgling population in Alaska started from a herd of 34 musk ox from Greenland, the Musk Ox Farm may one day send a herd overseas.
Special thanks to the Musk Ox Farm for this unique opportunity to learn more about these amazing animals!