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Musk Ox Harvest Crucial to Protect Animals' Food

Nunivak Island: State gives hunters more time

Alex deMarban / Anchorage Daily News / March 21, 2006

Bering Sea tempests have pummeled the treeless landscape on Nunivak Island with violent blizzards this winter, preventing some hunters from using snowmachines to reach hunting grounds and keeping others from landing at the airport.

As a result, an overabundance of shaggy-haired musk oxen are roaming the island.

"They're everywhere," said Abraham David, a transporter of hunters who lives in Mekoryuk, a village of about 200 people on the northern side of Nunivak. On clear days, he can see small herds scattered across the island.

To reduce the number of animals, the Board of Game, meeting in Fairbanks on Friday, extended the musk ox hunting season to March 31, said Peter Bente, Arctic and Western Alaska manager for the Department of Fish and Game in Nome.

That means about 15 hunters who didn't kill a musk ox during the winter season, originally scheduled to end March 15, will get a second chance. The limit is still one musk ox per hunter, Bente said.

The annual hunts begin in September and are open to residents and nonresidents through a drawing or on-site registration in Bethel or Mekoryuk, Bente said.

Population surveys indicate 600 to 650 musk oxen now wander the island, about 100 more than managers think is best, Bente said. Without natural predators, the woolly, dreadlocked beasts can reproduce quickly and eat themselves "out of house and home."

The oxen like to pile on the pounds in the summer, munching on grasses and flowers for the lean winters when they lumber to windswept high grounds in search of vegetation not buried under snow, he said.

That boom-and-bust cycle puts the population at high risk if it grows too large. It did about 35 years ago, peaking at 750. Many emaciated cows didn't give birth, Bente said.

Hunters kill about 100 musk oxen a year on the island. The huge animals, valued for their tasty meat and soft underhair, a textile called qiviut, make easy targets on the island's rolling tundra plains.

That's why they vanished from Alaska in the 1800s. When threatened, the Ice Age relics form intimidating defensive circles, their curved horns facing outward. The strategy works with wolves, but for hunters with dogs and guns, it's like a shooting gallery.

The animals returned to Alaska in 1930, when a herd from Greenland was transplanted to Fairbanks. The herd was moved to Nunivak Island in the mid-1930s, where it flourished and provided stock for herds now occupying portions of Western and Northern Alaska.

David, the transporter and owner of Nunivak Island Experiences, a local tour company, said guides on the island charge about $3,500 a hunt.

Bad weather wasn't the only thing that shut out hunters, he said. Snow-clearing equipment at the airport broke and replacement parts had to be airdropped in, he said.

Don Horrell and a fellow hunter from Glennallen were stranded in Mekoryuk for five days when the snowplow broke early this month.

They already had their musk oxen, though, because they had great weather on their first day in the village. Using David's transport service, they traveled by snowmachine to the hunting grounds about 60 miles southwest of the village, Horrell said.

But a blizzard kicked up when night fell, and David led the trio back to Mekoryuk with a GPS device, Horrell said.
Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at ademarban@adn.com.

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