No one knows for sure why musk oxen travel out onto the frozen Bering Sea each year, but their movements and the ice’s breaking have forced Alaska to open an emergency hunting season in the southwest corner of the state. Hunters can take two musk oxen per person in an attempt to salvage the animals, which will die miserable deaths out on the ice floes otherwise.
The emergency measure was authorized Oct. 14 and took effect Oct. 15. The hunt will be held in Unit 18, an area with overpopulated musk oxen to begin with. The ice around Nunivak and Nelson Islands is breaking up, leaving many animals free-floating across the Bering Sea with no way back to the mainland. Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials are encouraging hunters to shoot them in an dual act of mercy and wildlife management.
Alaska Public Media quoted the area’s assistant biologist, Patrick Jones, as saying, “[Musk oxen are] not swimmers, they’re not going to swim. They’re going to ride that chunk of ice out until they starve or fall in the water and drown.”
Resident hunters are allowed to take two oxen each with no tags or permit required, provided the animals are indeed trapped on ice floes completely surrounded by saltwater. Fish and Game isn’t just taking hunters’ word for it, though: Hunters must provide photographic evidence that the ice floe’s conditions were legal.
The islands sit at the western edge of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, with Nunivak an actual island separated from the mainland and Nelson included in the delta itself. According to a June 2015 survey, Nunivak has 740 musk oxen. Nelson has 944. The islands’ management goals are 500-550 and 250-450, respectively. Biologists are pointing to recent mild winters as a cause of the population growth.
The shaggy beasts typically move to areas with shallow snow in the winters to provide them with maximum food for minimal digging. The wind-swept sea ice qualifies as shallow enough to feed on, which may explain the animals’ movement out onto it. The lack of grasses and browse on arrival, combined with overpopulation back on the islands, may drive the oxen further onto the ice in search of better habitat.
Alaska Public Media said Jones expects the hunts to last for three more years to bring population levels down to management goals. A press release for the hunt said, “At present, populations can sustain the additional harvest of stranded musk oxen.”
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