Musk ox don’t live in Manokotak. Why is there a musk ox in Manokotak?

The muskox pictured here, was spotted on Airport Road in Manokotak on an early Saturday morning in September, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Melvin and Sally Andrew)

Melvin Andrew was out in Southwest Alaska village of Manokotak in the early morning looking for moose with his wife, Sally. That’s when they spotted a rather large creature.

“She said, ‘A moose! A moose!’ But when I spy-glassed it I saw the telltale sounds of musk ox horns. I said some explicit words like, ‘What is he doing here,” Andrew said.

The Andrews approached the ox thinking it would leave, but it didn’t budge. It dipped out of sight, but they managed to catch a glimpse of the animal walking away and snapped a photo.

Muskox are native to the Yukon-Delta National Wildlife Refuge. They can grow to be five feet tall and weigh somewhere between 600 and 800 pounds. They have long hair, a slight shoulder hump and a very short tail. Both males and females have horns, but the bulls’ are larger and heavier.

Pat Jones is a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Bethel. Jones said this particular animal is an adult bull that moseyed down from the Nelson Island population — a herd of musk oxen, adult and calf.

“The bulls seem to have a lot more wanderlust, they go on longer walkabouts,” he said. “They show up in areas first and maybe five years to 10 years later, we start seeing cows in the areas that we saw bulls. That’s kind of the historical pattern we’ve seen across the landscape. But there’s been some moving your direction for years.”

About a year ago, muskox were spotted by residents in villages around the Togiak Wildlife Refuge. Jon Dyazuk is the village refuge liaison.

“First sighting we had was last spring,” Dyazuk said. “It was a muskox that a village member sent us, that was in Chagvan Bay… Another one was sighted not so long afterwards, near the village of Platinum.”

Musk ox disappeared from Alaska in the 1920s. A federal initiative reintroduced the animals a decade later, bringing over 34 musk ox from East Greenland to Nunivak Island, off the west coast of the state.

A map of Alaska showing the range of muskoz in three separate areas, the far west and Nunivak Island, the Northwest Arctic, and an area on the east end of the Norht Slope.
Muskox territory across the state. They can be found on Nunivak Island, Credit Courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

By the 1970s, the state transported some of the animals from Nunivak to establish new herds on the Seward Peninsula, Cape Thompson, the Nelson Island and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Fish and Game reported a total of about 5,300 musk ox in Alaska in 2011.

There are no official population counts of musk ox in Bristol Bay because of their low presence in the region.

But what happens if you encounter a musk ox? Unlike moose or caribou, they will not acknowledge a person’s presence. Rather, the ox will get defensive, back itself into a corner until it feels it’s safe to leave. But, Jones said, they will go on the offensive with canines.

“Probably a self-defense mechanism that goes back to the Ice Age,” he said. “They will kill dogs if they get the chance. If there’s a musk ox around and you have a dog on a chain you’ll want to bring it inside for a day or two till the musk ox passes. Every year, musk ox kill dogs that are chained up outside.”

Musk ox hunting is not permitted in Bristol Bay, and there’s a closed moratorium in other regions of the mainland — Units 18 and 22 B,C, D and E, and in Unit 23. People can register for musk ox hunting through June 30, 2021.

Video courtesy of Melvin and Sally Andrew

Contact the author at tyler@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200

Correction: The title of this story originally misspelled Manokotak.