On The Trail Of The World’s Fluffiest Alien: The Musk Ox
Last month I found myself in the middle of Norway’s Dovre mountains. It’s a gorgeous region, with picturesque landscape stretching out well beyond the limits of human vision, which applies to a lot of Norway in all honesty. My family chose Dovre as our stopover though, because it’s the home of the musk ox.
The nature of human development in Europe means that many large mammals were wiped out long ago, so it’s always enjoyable to be able to see species like the musk ox, moose or red deer roaming the forests or plains. The musk ox enjoys a special place in the hearts of many Norwegians – it’s on the crest of Dovre municipality – and tours of the ‘native’ habitat have become very popular. Multiple tour companies run packed musk ox safaris year round (even now, with COVID-19 looming over the country).
Except of course, the musk ox isn’t a native species.
The first musk ox were introduced to Norway for the first time shortly before World War Two. Yet the initiative quickly failed, with German soldiers reported to have killed off the last of a population that was already dwindling due to a lack of calves and a few deaths in avalanches*. A second reintroduction was attempted, and the species has since flourished.
There’s a degree of speculation as to why the musk ox were introduced in the first place. Our tour guide from Musk Ox safaris, Kim van Kooten, speculated that it may be a product of a guilty conscience.
“Norwegians hadn’t been great to the Musk Ox in Greenland. They shot and killed a lot around there. Perhaps it was to restore their reputation as conservationists?”
Looking for a definite answer, I turned to Tord Bretten, who tracks the musk ox as part of his work for Norway’s Environmental Agency. No luck.
“The reputation could have been part of it, softening that criticism. It could have also been for meat production, they are an efficient meat producer. But nobody knows for sure.”
While the Musk Ox seem to have enjoyed a good deal of popularity in Norway, they are labelled an alien species by Norway’s research institute Artsdatabanken, signifying that they were not present in the region 200 years ago. There are ongoing arguments about how alien they really are though, with the extinction of the Musk Ox in Europe only occurring some 9000 years ago. It was the last known mammal species that the European mainland lost until the seventeenth century, when the aurochs disappeared due to excessive hunting.
Dovrefjell is far from the only region to have seen musk ox introductions though. I first became fascinated by this weirdly popular candidate for rewilding after meeting Master’s student Rachel Guindon in Reykjavik earlier this year. The north of Quebec in Eastern Canada has been the site of another successful introduction effort. Yet as opposed to their introduction in Norway, their introduction around Ungava and Hudson Bay has been regarded with thorough scepticism from the start.
According to Rachel, it’s in part because of the role the native Canadian population had (or more accurately didn’t have) in the introduction.
“The idea was to stimulate socio-economic development in Kuujjuak for the Inuit groups living there. So they could rely on a new industry, harvesting and crafting the fur.”
Musk ox have two layers of fur, the outer, ‘Hawaiian-skirt’ layer, and the inner wool which they shed in the spring. It’s this wool which my son constantly picked up along the musk ox trail at Dovre, and it’s this wool which is softer than cashmere, warmer than sheep’s wool, and sells for a packet. But it didn’t matter to the local people, Rachel elaborates.
“It ‘s not part of Inuit culture to do that sort of farming. Their focus has always been caribou. It’s what they’ve traditionally relied on, for food, for hunting. That was the main focus. Musk ox farms just didn’t work.”
So the government changed course, though still without any consultation of the local indigenous people. They released the Musk Ox to different parts of Nunavik, in the hope that a local hunting industry would develop. The idea never took off.
Local populations of the musk ox did though, assisted by further introductions and air transport to help the species spread around the region. Yet Rachel thinks the Inuit groups she worked with still have mixed feelings about the population.
“Some groups hunt them and will eat them. But the musk ox is used mostly for dog meat. So they will give them to their pets. Along the Hudson coast people really don’t like them. I’ve heard stories of musk ox being just shot and left in the field to die.”
Rachel’s main focus has been determining whether or not the musk ox have had a negative effect on the local vegetation, by comparing regions with and without the species. So far, whilst there may be changes on very small local scales, the research indicates there’s not much large-scale change as a product of the musk ox being there.
The question of their impact is an interesting one. Whilst the musk ox is native to Canada, its range didn’t extend as far south as Quebec. And whilst it died out in the Nordic region 9,000 years ago, that’s still a relatively short time on an ecological scale. Whether or not it’s judged to be alien to either region is a controversial argument.
While any effects on vegetation might be negligible, Rachel has heard from several locals that the Musk Ox drive off the local reindeer, which is a genuine concern. There has been a significant drop in caribou populations over recent decades, though the link with Musk Ox populations is far from definitive.
It’s a concern that is shared by Tord Bretten back in Norway.
“The tourism has made them very popular here. We get photographers, and tourists going on musk ox tours all year round now, and the musk ox can cope with it, but it’s hard for the native reindeer population. The reindeer react to the tourists immediately.”
The safaris are a trend that is starting to pick up in Quebec as well, with the Musk Ox becoming a staple on tours of Ungava and Hudson Bay. Hopefully the tourist dollars flow back into the local Inuit communities, but whether the increased activity will hasten the departure of the reindeer is still unclear.
Should they stay? Kim concedes that if the locals turned and decided the musk ox were more trouble than they were worth, she’d accept it. Tord’s approach to the rewilding is ‘why not’, echoing that of many others behind the reintroduction efforts. Regardless, it doesn’t look like the Norwegian or Quebec populations are going anywhere, with one too popular and the other too populous for removal. And with populations still being spread throughout Russia, it looks like the musk ox are on their way to once again becoming a permanent fixture in the Arctic and sub-Arctic.
Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who thoroughly recommends hiking through Dovrefjell, whether or not you see a musk ox. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.
*It’s not the first time this accusation has been made, with other German soldiers contributing to the near-extinction of the native wisent in Polish forests around the same time.