Last May, from the unlikely interior of the calving barns at the University of Alaska, there emerged seven bright-eyed, roly-poly hanks of hair that may someday be considered among the world's most important animals. They were the first results of a selective-breeding program designed to help the musk ox do for the north country what the Longhorn steer did for the American West a century before.
Not that anyone who has known and loved a musk ox—and the two conditions apparently are inseparable—would listen for a moment to comparison of his beast with the scrawny, ornery Long-horn. A musk ox smells good, tastes good, gives milk and loves to play games. But, most important of all, beneath the long, coarse, drab-brown hair that descends like chain mail from the pale saddle across their backs almost to their spatulate feet musk oxen carry an underwool finer than any other wool substance known in nature. And since they are capable of ingesting Arctic vegetation that any self-respecting reindeer or caribou would sniff at, the prairies stretching around the northern zones of the earth could support huge herds of them without ruffling the ecological balance of that rough yet fragile land.
In recent geological times, musk oxen ranged south at least to Kentucky on the North American continent and throughout Europe. While it is generally accepted that their pasturage shrank as they followed the retreat of ice northward during the last Ice Age, Vilhjalmur Stefansson blames their sharp decline in numbers on man and his thoughtless extermination of the herds. "Bows, arrows and spears were invented 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 years ago," wrote Stefansson. "Ever since those days nearly every band of musk ox has in effect committed suicide by not fleeing but standing up against man to fight."
To passionate protectors of the earth's rare animals, these are among the most tragic words in Stefansson's long chronicles of life in the Arctic. When attacked, musk oxen form a rough circle of defense in the manner of a western wagon train threatened by Indians. Larger animals take up positions shoulder to shoulder on the perimeter, massive horned heads lowered to confront the enemy, with calves and yearlings buried within the protective ring. An individual animal will make a short, threatening sortie out of the circle and then promptly wriggle back into position, but rarely do the animals attack en masse, and they will run only if thoroughly alarmed. This circling strategy is a splendid defense against wolves, but a setup for slaughter by man.
There is no sport in the killing of musk oxen, but in past years many "fearless" hunters returned to civilization with horrendous tales of attacks by "the world's most dangerous game animal." The musk ox, misnamed, misunderstood, maligned in a hundred fictitious stories delivered from the lectern, had no friends except a few who marveled at its magnificent adaptation to the Arctic prairies.
Musk ox range reached its low point in the last century. Whalers—Russian, Norwegian and American—wintering over in Arctic seas indulged in wanton slaughter, as much to relieve boredom as to obtain food, for they killed whole bands far in excess of need. As recently as the decade 1860 to 1870 the last native band of musk oxen in Alaska was exterminated in the vicinity of Point Hope. Canada's Banks Island is strewn as thickly with the bones of animals killed in the late 19th century as a Dakota prairie in the years of the buffalo slaughter.
I first saw a band of musk oxen move in flowing, fast gait, astonishingly graceful despite their short legs, through coarse, frozen tundra grass on a fog-shrouded island of the Bering Sea. Suddenly in dim winter twilight, like a forgotten vista of the Ice Age, they wheeled in clouds of self-generated steam and turned to study me. Years later I watched a young man named Terry Hall, herd manager of the musk ox breeding station at the University of Alaska, playfully haul a large bull across a snowy pasture on a sledge. Intensely curious, musk oxen will leap aboard any moving object—which led one of us to question just who was domesticating whom. This delightful incident was as incongruous as sighting a diplodocus at play in the backyard.
Like many other admirers of the musk ox, I have traced its dwindling natural range on the globe many times—the Arctic islands of extreme northern Canada, Peary Land to Scores by Sound on the eastern coast of Greenland and the Canadian mainland at the game sanctuary created for it on the Thelon River west of Chesterfield Inlet on Hudson Bay. In 1930 this natural range was extended when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured wild musk ox calves and yearlings in Greenland and transplanted them first to Fairbanks and then to Nunivak Island off the coast of Alaska. Similar resettlements were made in Spitsbergen and in Norway. These little bands flourished, mostly because the habitats are free of wolves, their No. 1 enemy next to man, and the animals are now protected by international laws against slaughter and capture. The Nunivak herd—my own introduction to musk oxen—rapidly increased in 30 years from 33 animals to the current estimated population of 680.
In 1954, into this poignant picture of musk oxen surviving in remote huddles on the Arctic prairies there stepped the Institute of Northern Agricultural Research, a group of Arctic ecologists devoted to the domestication of both animals and plants for use in the northern economy. Concentration was on the musk ox in the belief that this great, shaggy, yoke-horned beast is best equipped to lead the northward march of civilization.
The name musk oxen is absurd, for they are not oxen nor do they have musk glands. Having buried my face deep in the foot-thick shoulder wool of a damp musk ox and sniffed and sniffed, I can report that they smell only wet and woolly, and faintly—but not offensively—of manure. Even the scientific name, Ovibos moschatus (musky sheep-cow), is a misnomer, as the musk ox probably is an ancient ruminant that started off independently somewhere between the antelope and goat species. The Eskimos call it oomingmak (the bearded one) and know his wonderful underwool as qiviut.