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The Miracle of the Muskox

This article first appeared Wild Fibers Vol. 3, Iss. 3

A muskox and her newborn calf

In the summer of 1930, a vigorous Norwegian named Johannes Lund contracted with the U.S. Government to capture a herd of muskoxen. The expedition took him to east Greenland where the animals were caught, put on dog sleds, taken to the coast, and then loaded on a small boat bound for Norway. Upon arrival, these unsuspecting ungulates were then put on a ship to the United States. After more than a week-long crossing in turbulent seas, the animals were off-loaded in New York City Harbor and put in quarantine for a month, then transported by freight train to Seattle. With Fairbanks as their final destination, and no direct rail service between Washington and Alaska (which had yet to become the 49th state), the muskoxen were placed on yet another boat and taken to the southern tip of Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. From there, the seasoned travelers were loaded yet again onto a railcar and taken to the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF)—the place they would now call home.


Miraculously, all 34 animals survived this four-month epic journey.


For the next five years, researchers at UAF conducted studies on the feeding and breeding habits of the muskox. Financed by a $40,000 U.S. government grant focused not only at reintroducing muskoxen to their native habitat, but exploring their potential as a sustainable livestock, these bestial immigrants enjoyed a relatively peaceful life in  UAF’s plush pastures—save for the occasional black bear attack that reduced the herd to 31.


To many, the muskox looks prehistoric with its massive horn boss (a hard protective layer growing up to seven inches thick on the front of its skull) that resembles a mastodon wearing a football helmet—minus the chinstrap and tusks. Their distinctive horns have a pinched curly tip like a 1950s hairstyle that has thankfully never been resurrected, and their entire body is cloaked in long, thick hairy strands that are nothing short of a fiber symphony when a strong breeze passes through. Records indicate that muskoxen roamed the planet along with wooly mammoths and mastodons during the last Ice Age, but only the muskoxen survived.


Eventually the initial grant money was depleted and the research phase came to an end. Once again the muskoxen were sent packing to the train station. This time, they were transported by rail to the town of Nenana (55 miles south of Fairbanks) and placed on a barge down the Tanana and Yukon rivers before heading out 18 miles across the Bering Sea to Nunivak Island, a National Wildlife Refuge established by President Herbert Hoover. There, the muskoxen would revel in a predator-free life—that is until the great white hunter reared his trusty rifle.


During the next 30 years, the muskox population on Nunivak grew to 750 animals, exceeding the island’s projected carrying capacity of 590-640 animals. By 1969, the Alaska House of Representatives passed a bill to issue big game hunting tags on the island but one week later the bill was vetoed by Walter J. Hickel, Secretary of the Department of the Interior and two-time governor of Alaska.


“We have no intention of permitting such a hunt,” Hickel said. “The muskox is not a game animal and should continue to be developed for domestic purposes. To permit such a hunt,” the Secretary added, “would be contrary to the intentions of the conservation-minded people who worked so hard in the 1930s to import the first of these gentle animals to this country from Greenland.”


Hickel continues: “The muskox is a rare animal and one which, thr­ough careful br­eeding and dom­estication, offers an excellent means of developing new industry in the Arctic.”  


It should be noted that Hi­ckel’s desires were ultimately not up­held. In 2006, with a population of approximately 650 muskoxen, 90 hunting permits were issued.

Despite the amount of time, resources, and effort that went into reintroducing the muskox to Alaska (they had become extinct in Alaska by the late 1800s due to hunting and severe climate changes), this large Arctic mammal might have vanished yet again were it not for the efforts of anthropologist John Teal—a name that is practically synonymous with the muskox throughout much of Alaska and the fiber industry at large.


Back in the early 1950s, it was Teal’s intent to create a cottage industry for Alaskan natives to supplement their subsistence lifestyles with income from hand knitting garments made with qiviut (KI-VEE-UTE), the soft downy undercoat of the muskox. Finer than cashmere and six times warmer than wool, qiviut is the finest fiber you can legally harvest from a live animal. (Shah­toosh, the ultra-fine fiber from the Tibetan chiru is considered softer, but only comes from slaughtered animals and is highly illegal.)

But there is another name that is nearly as pivotal to the reintroduction of the Alaskan muskox population as Teal’s, yet rarely mentioned in fiber circles or casual muskox chatter: Mike Yankovich, an eastern European bachelor farmer who had settled on the outskirts of Fairbanks during the 1920s and grew potatoes and hay. As a result of his relationship with Teal and belief in the project, Yankovich deeded his 150-acre farm to UAF in 1963 for the specific purpose of muskox research. And, as if taken from some bad chapter in “travels with muskoxen,” once again, a number of shaggy boys and girls were chaperoned from Nunivak back to Fairbanks to begin Teal’s research phase of qiviut production.


During the following decade (1963-1973), what happened at the Muskox Farm, as it was known at the time and as many locals still refer to it, is markedly different than its current mission. In 1980, it officially became known as LARS (Large Animal Research Station) operated by UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology. But there were no muskoxen left in residence. Teal had moved his entire herd to the outskirts of Unalakleet, a small village on the eastern shores of Norton Sound in 1973 and neither he nor his animals were affiliated with the University anymore. With empty pastures and an unfulfilled mission, once again 16 more muskoxen were translocated from Nunivak.


The muskox herd at LARS

Today, LARS is an outstanding research facility focused on studying large terrestrial mammals native to the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. In addition to its herd of approximately 40 muskoxen, there is an equal number of caribou and reindeer.

Although LARS is focused on conducting a variety of physiologically based studies, its muskox herd is a critical component to the Alaska fiber industry. In 2005, more than one hundred pounds of raw (unprocessed) qiviut was sold to Oomingmak, the Anchorage based Muskox Cooperative established by Teal. Although that amount may not seem remarkable, it represents about 40% of Oomingmak’s annual supply.

LARS provides unique research opportunities not just for the scientists, but for the people charged with the everyday care and feeding of the muskoxen as well. Their daily interaction is routine yet extraordinary.


Sandy Garbowski initially started at UAF a few years back as a volunteer weekend feeder with the caribou herd, which led to a part-time job combing the muskoxen. For the last five years she has been a full-time animal technician (a title that seems decidedly understated considering the scope of her responsibility and risk). With a lifelong background in horses, including racing thoroughbreds, Sandy is not easily intimidated by large, strong-willed, unpredictable animals. Along with Peter Reynoldson, they are responsible for the care and well-being of the herd. Sandy’s relationship with the muskoxen is quite remarkable. “You always have to be in control,” she says with a friendly tone. “Obviously, if you’re not careful, you can get hurt.” And yet, walking next to her amongst thousands of pounds of snorting, belching beasts seems no more threatening then a classroom of kindergarteners.


The herd is separated into four pastures based on age and sex. The large, impressive breeding bulls weighing up to 800 pounds are kept near the entrance gate (LARS is an education and outreach facility and welcomes more than 22,000 visitors a year.) Next to the bulls, there is another well-fenced pasture with moms and babies boasting a cute factor that’s off the charts. And adjoining muskoxen “daycare,” there is a small herd of reindeer who also shed their undercoat seasonally, but no one seems to be stocking their shelves with 2-ply Santa spun … yet.


Most of the herd (adult females and castrated males) enjoy several large pastures located behind the barn and main research building. They have a mixture of both field and forest in which to roam and for much of the summer they are happily grazing along the hillside. Their long shaggy coats make them relatively impervious to Alaska’s notorious mosquitoes.


Muskox kids ... up to no good!

There is yet another pasture located near the labyrinth of gates leading into the barn where several two-year-old males are playfully jousting with each other. Clearly, the energy level seems somewhat elevated in this group. “Several years back we had a pair of bottle-raised boys that had the worst manners you can imagine. They beat up everything,” Sandy recalls. “We called them the Bruise Brothers but eventually they had to go.” And any farmer will tell you that animals that can’t behave nicely have no place on the farm and with muskoxen it’s no different—ensuring the safety of the handlers is paramount.


The muskoxen at LARS are an exceptional group. In addition to being the largest captive herd (there are less than 150 muskoxen in captivity in the world, including zoos, game parks, and private ownership), each muskox is handled weekly for weighing and evaluation. “We have a unique opportunity to conduct research that would be impossible to manage in their native habitat,” says Hauer. Muskoxen are the largest terrestrial land mammal that overwinter in the high Arctic (polar bears are considered marine mammals and caribou migrate to the south) and to date, there has been limited research conducted on them.


As a result, in the more than 25 years that LARS has been studying muskoxen, a wealth of information has come to light. In 1992, Pamela Groves published the first (and only) book on Muskoxen Husbandry. Based predominantly on her experience managing Teal’s herd in Unalakleet, Groves was one of the first people to scientifically assess muskox behavior in captivity, reporting on everything from fencing requirements (even with its short, stubby legs a muskox can jump a four-foot fence or crawl under it) to worming protocol and hoof trimming. But despite the thoroughness of Groves’ research, the value of muskoxen husbandry plays to a limited audience, although enthusiasm for the animal continues to grow.


Presently, raw qiviut sells for about $25 per ounce (average yield per animal is about 4-6 pounds). But before you race to the bank be advised that a 50-pound bale of hay costs about $10 from the feed store and LARS facility supervisor Bill Hauer estimates that each animal consumes roughly a ton of hay a year. A research project on feeds for qiviut production by LARS Science Director Perry Barboza and UAF veterinarian John Blake (funded by the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation) included economic models and analyses of production that were feasible for small producers. The high cost of animals (not many for sale and conducted by closed-bid auction) and the high cost of fencing a facility (standard start-up problem for any game facility) were major barriers. The cost of supplemental feeding with formulations produced on the project was small compared with the infrastructure. According to LARS Science Director Perry Barboza the low land use of these ungulates is partly related to their ability to thoroughly digest coarse forages.


But for most, there is much more to the muskox than farming economics. Just exactly how and why these animals have thrived in a part of the world that seems virtually inhospitable to most everyone else is a question that has challenged a number of resear­chers in the past 50 years.


Muskox calf

“A critical piece of knowledge has been understanding what controls their reproductive cycle,” says Hauer. “Muskoxen in the wild were calving every 2-3 years versus what we were witnessing on the farm, which was closer to one calf every year.” Research at LARS has shown that a female muskox will not enter estrus during the fall if her present calf still requires a high level of nutrition. The evolutionary strategy appears to be based on weight. If a spring calf is requiring a lot of milk (cows produce up to a half gallon a day) then presumably the calf will need a high nutritional resource to get through the winter. In return, the mother doesn’t gain enough weight because of the demands on body for milk production, so all of her extra resources go towards feeding the calf on the ground, as opposed to developing a new one.


There is a secondary strategy at work in this scenario: if there isn’t enough food available to keep the animals at their “reproductive weight,” then in theory, they shouldn’t reproduce beyond the carrying capacity of the land’s natural resources. (This hypothesis does not hold true with island populations where migratory options are limited and a closely controlled hunt is now permitted on Banks Island in Canada, which, along with cyclical population crashes in response to harsh winters, helps curb the total herd size.)

 

But there are additional issues to raising muskoxen beyond economics and food supply: environment. During the initial phase of research at LARS, there was a high rate of calf mortality contrary to data gathered from the wild. It was soon determined that the relatively temperate weather (as compared to the Arctic) and lush pastures in Fairbanks were naturally host to a platoon of parasites and germs not found in the muskoxen’s native tundra.


Muskox babies are born with a primitive immune system and are easily susceptible to any number of unfriendly microbes living in greener pastures. Such encounters can rapidly prove fatal during the first few weeks and even months of life, although there are just as many nasty pathogens in the wild as in captivity. High numbers of animals in a small fenced area simply do not allow the residents to avoid the accumulating pathogens in the same way as wild animals moving around their home range. According to recent studies (performed by Rombach, Knott and Swor with Barboza and Blake), muskoxen seem to be more vulnerable than reindeer are to high density conditions at birth.


But what about the fiber? Surely in today’s world of über Merinos with 11.5 micron fleeces and sweaters made of yak, the mighty muskox can be raised to produce prodigious amounts of qiviut—yes?  No.


In 2000, Dr. Robert G. White published a report on “Maximizing Underwool (Qiviut) Production in Muskoxen.”  Along with Janice E. Rowell and Morgan A. Robertson, the objective was to determine if methionine (an amino acid known for increasing wool production in sheep) would have a similar effect on the muskox.


From 1997-1998, a control group of muskoxen at LARS were fed Smartamine (rumen protected methionine) and as hoped, the total qiviut yield per animal increased along with the rate of wool growth. Not surprisingly, the study also demonstrated that fiber from the methionine fed animals had a greater tensile strength (making it more durable for commercial processing) than those on a regular diet. But the downside to the methionine additive was an increase in fiber diameter, thus compromising qiviut’s most desirable trait—its extreme fineness.


Further studies conducted by Peltier and Barboza showed that protein supplements did not increase wool growth. The main effect of Smartamine was on a few lactating females. Methionine and protein are effective only when the diet is already limited in protein and sulfur amino acids.


While methionine has been known to increase wool production in sheep by 35%, the gain in muskoxen was between 17-24%. At the time of the study, raw qiviut was worth $135-$150 per pound translating into a net gain of $120 per animal; less the feeding cost of the methionine—about $10 per animal for a six month supply. (Note: although the direct cost of the methionine may seem negligible compared to the increase in wool production, there are additional labor costs associated with top-dressing feed which may not be practical to implement in a large commercial setting.)


To the casual observer, the results of the methionine study may not seem particularly startling in view of its recorded success with sheep. What does seem extraordinary is that qiviut samples collected from muskoxen in the wild (Banks Island, NWT, Canada) were actually greater in diameter than those taken from the animals at LARS on the “wool-amphetamine” diet. Despite the scarcity of resources to sustain the Banks Island muskoxen during the winter, their graze is so intensely rich during the summer they appear to still have an overall higher nutritional intake than those living in a more temperate zone.


Fat or thin, big or small, the quality of the qiviut is almost irrelevant if there isn’t an effective way to gather it. Shearing is not an option; not only would it be nearly impossible to effectively separate the fine downy fibers from the guard hair during commercial processing, but muskoxen need their coat for protection during both summer and winter. Therefore, the only alternative is to either grab handfuls of qiviut off bushes in the field (where they rub and scratch the fiber loose) or to comb them.

When Teal’s animals first arrived at the UAF in the 1960s, the general mindset was to pull the babies from their mothers after several weeks and bottle-feed them. Through hand-rearing, they would become more tractable and make the combing process easier as they got larger. Yet, this option invited other issues—not the least of which was compromising the value of the mother-baby relationship. A human mother (no matter how clever) can’t train a baby muskox to properly be an adult muskox.


Presently, the majority of muskoxen at LARS exhibit a gentle and “obedient” demeanor. The constant interaction with the staff (along with careful culling) makes them relatively safe to handle, and most mothers naturally teach their babies to respect their elders, or certainly their humans!


This dynamic is perfectly illustrated as Sandy leads a pair of adults into the barn for combing. Without using halters for control, two geriatrics named Ingrid and Ursula casually fall in step behind her. It’s the true sign of a professional who can make anything look easy.


The author combing a muskox in the squeeze chute

The combing takes place inside a steel squeeze chute that is redder than an overripe tomato. It also doubles as a bathroom scale so the animals are quite accustomed to walking through it. There are hinged panels that fold down on either side making the entire animal more accessible (caribou and reindeer go through them too!) and they can actually lie down during combing if feeling so inclined.


Because qiviut sheds out over a period of weeks, multiple sessions can be required to harvest all the fiber. Using a long-toothed comb (you may recall the “afro-pic”), the qiviut actually glides through the guard hair quite easily. But feeling the amount of heat trapped next to their body by the ultra-soft (and ultra-luxurious) down makes it understandable how they can withstand temperatures of minus 100 degrees F.

There is much to be learned from the muskox. How they store energy for the winter. How their metabolism decreases to a point that seems almost like “active” hibernation. How they thrive in the high Arctic when other mammals head south for the winter. And what will happen to them as the effects of global warming continue to alter their environment year after year after year?


Perhaps none of these questions would be answered if LARS was not committed to understanding the ultimate ungulate. And perhaps our interest would not be so intense if the muskox didn’t produce the ultimate luxury fiber. But perhaps still, this really wouldn’t matter if those 34 seaward woolies hadn’t made that great journey more than 80 years ago.


Perhaps … we’ll never know.

 


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