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Alaska musk oxen found frozen in ice

Craig Medred
A musk ox in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge Courtesy: National Park Service

Climate change appears to have killed a herd of musk oxen in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve of Northwest Alaska.

Thirty-two musk oxen carcasses were found March 15 by scientists who had been studying them. The animals were dead and entombed in ice. The belief is that the musk oxen either drowned during a February thaw or became trapped in water and died after it froze.

A late February storm on the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula, which played havoc with the Iron Dog snowmachine race, also apparently caused a mid-winter icing event that killed the Arctic animals, scientists believe.

Coastal flooding due to the storm forced the Iron Dog to be put on hold in Nome, and portions of the trail later had to be rerouted around open water. The Iron Dog takes snowmachine racers 2,000 miles, from Wasilla in Southcentral Alaska up to Nome and then back east to Fairbanks -- a "motor-head" version of Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

As the snowmachiners were waiting out the storm in an old gold-mining town on the peninsula, scientists say that the musk oxen were dying just to the north of them.

A press release from the National Park Service confirmed that 32 animals "were found frozen in the ice on the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula … (and) it is possible that an additional 23 may be buried deeper and not visible until spring."

Some scientists studying caribou in the region say periodic winter thaws appear to be a new Arctic phenomenon linked to global warming. The climatic shifts have previously been linked to caribou and Dall sheep deaths, but not musk oxen.

Four musk oxen in what had been a 55-animal herd were located by biologists tracking their radio collars. The animals would have been otherwise hard to find. Their carcasses were largely covered by ice and snow that fell after a refreeze.

However, once the radio-tracking devices led researchers to the four tagged animals, on-the-ground reconnaissance led to the discovery of 28 more. Scientists still do not know for sure whether the rest of the herd escaped the flooding and ice. They are now trying to determine which musk oxen in the herd died and exactly how.

All of the animals were part of what was scheduled as a five-year study by respected Alaska wildlife researcher Layne Adams. He has been studying musk oxen population dynamics in Northwest Alaska with the help of Joel Berger, senior scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and a professor at the University of Montana.

The park service doubts the meat of the musk oxen, eaten by local residents, is salvageable at this time, and notes that it is unlawful to remove the horns of the muskoxen because the animals are in a national park. The 2.6 million acre Bering preserve was protected under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 as a remnant of the land bridge that connected Asia with North America more 13,000 years ago.

It is expected the carcasses will be scavenged by wolves, foxes, eagles and ravens, and if there is anything left, by grizzly bears in the spring. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com