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Dead Alaska musk oxen location a secret

Alex DeMarban

The National Park Service won't release the location of the 30-plus musk oxen it believed drowned in a February tidal surge before becoming encased in a mass grave of ice.

Officials don't want "souvenir hunters" messing with the unusual scene, which could give scientists a rare glimpse into musk ox health on the Seward Peninsula, said John Quinley, an NPS spokesman.

The shaggy corpses of 32 musk oxen were found in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on March 15, horns, dreadlocks and hunks of the animals emerging from the ice.

The Park Service gave the location only as a low-lying area on the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula, in the 2.6-million-acre preserve that was once part of the ice bridge connecting Asia and North America. The closest village is Shishmaref.

"It doesn't seem practical to chip them out of the ice, so the plan is to come later in the spring and summer as things thaw to take samples," Quinley said.

Scientists will check teeth to learn ages, leg bones to determine body fat, and do other work to understand the animals condition at death. They were believed healthy.

About 1,000 musk oxen are believed to occupy the Seward Peninsula and the dead musk oxen can give clues about the rest of the herd, Quinley said.

Musk oxen are hard-core survivors with ancestral Ice Age roots. But they also have a knack for dying in batches.

A 2004 flood on the North Slope's Coleville River wiped out 13. The animals disappeared from Alaska in the mid-1800s -- overhunting is one possibility. The animals were reintroduced to Alaska early last century with stock from Greenland.

"Their metabolic rate, it drops by a significant amount. They have a lot of fat, so they are pretty hardy," Quinley said.

But they don't move much in winter, and if you stay in one place and something bad happens in that place, your chance of survival isn't good, he said.

The animals, part of a group of 55 observed not long before the Feb. 25 date they are believed to have died, were part of a five-year study on "musk ox population dynamics" in Northwest Alaska.

The study involved the Wildlife Conservation Society and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Scientists think the remainder of that group, another 23, may also have been killed. Four had been fitted with VHF or GPS radio collars.

The same storm also crippled Kotzebue, causing some flooding and shutting down the city for a day. Gusts gave the killing blow to the new, $1.3 million whale-rib street lights along Shore Avenue. Those lights, some of which cracked at the base and light fixtures, have been removed.

Harry Lind, with the National Weather Service in Kotzebue, said the flooding was due in part to a series of storms from the south that forced a surge of water into Kotzebue Sound.

The surge teamed with a strong high tide that day, lifting sea ice and shattering its coastal edges. The musk oxen, somewhere across the Sound from Kotzebue, were apparently caught in the maelstrom, Quinley said.

Now, until more thawing occurs and scientists can gather up skulls and bones, the NPS wants no scavenging by humans.

"It is unlawful to remove horns from national parklands, and likely the meat is neither salvageable nor palatable," an NPS press release said.

The meat is probably rotten because the big animals are highly insulated and keep warm for long periods after their death, Quinley said.

Foxes, wolverines and other animals are expected to have one heck of a buffet come spring.

"There will be a lot of decomposing flesh for scavengers," Quinley said.

This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.