Poachers have killed up to half the members of a new musk ox herd establishing itself on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, delaying for at least a few years the possibility of a legal hunt on the shaggy beasts.
Alaska State Troopers say they believe eight men from a single village in the region traveled in recent weeks to a cluster of extinct volcanoes where the animals had gathered and within the past two weeks shot 10 to 12 of them using small-bore rifles at close range. Another cow and calf were killed in January.
Troopers and federal agents visited the village Wednesday to gather evidence, said trooper Matt Dobson in Bethel. Charges could be filed next week.
Word of the troopers' investigation spread quickly around the Delta, and many residents are furious, said Roger Seavoy, who manages hunting in the region for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Bethel.
In dozens of villages where subsistence hunting is a way of life, people had hoped the mainland musk oxen would flourish and eventually support a legal hunt.
"There's a lot of people calling me up with such anger and venom in their voice -- 'Take their snowmachines, put them in jail for life, take away their Permanent Fund dividends,' " Seavoy said. "People are really fried."
Musk oxen once lived all over the Arctic, including northern and western Alaska, but with the advent of gunpowder were nearly driven to extinction. They were gone from Alaska by the late 1800s, according to Fish and Game reports.
But in a wildlife rescue effort approved by Congress, three dozen Greenland musk oxen were transplanted to Fairbanks in 1931. By 1936, they were moved to Nunivak Island, just off the Y-K Delta coast, where they thrived. The Nunivak herd has since been used as seed stock for new herds from Nome and Kotzebue, across the North Slope and in Russia.
One of the first splinter herds formed in 1968, when two dozen Nunivak musk oxen were transplanted onto nearby Nelson Island. Now the two islands have a combined population of 900 animals, from which hunters take 120 or more bulls and cows every year.
With few predators other than hunters, the Nelson Island herd has overflowed, Seavoy said. Animals have been sighted all over the Delta, from Kuskokwim Bay to Russian Mission on the Yukon River.
In particular, they began congregating at an area known locally as the Mud Volcanoes, a cluster of extinct volcanoes and cinder cones 50 miles northwest of Bethel. The rocky cones cover several square miles. The tallest poke several hundred feet out of the flat, wet tundra.
"They look just like (a volcano) you would draw for your kid," said Dobson. "Just that little bit of elevation is what makes those musk ox want to get up there."
When Seavoy flew over the area last summer, he counted 29 animals, including seven calves. The biologist quickly realized he had the makings of another herd, he said. Nelson Island started with 24.
But in January, officials heard that a cow and a calf had been killed. In the last several weeks, they got tips about more poaching. During flights to the volcanoes, they found evidence that 10 to 12 animals had been shot, according to Dobson.
The meat wasn't wasted, he said. The state and federal agents found gut piles and in some cases tracks suggesting the animals had been dragged to less exposed areas for butchering. Heads and hides were buried in the snow, Dobson said.
On Wednesday, four troopers and two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents flew to a village to interview suspects and gather evidence. Several hundred pounds of meat were confiscated, and DNA samples were taken for testing, Dobson said.
It appears the men snowmachined to the volcanoes and took advantage of the animals' natural defenses to kill them, Dobson said. When musk oxen are threatened, they close into a circle. It works against wolves, he said, but not bullets. "Some of these animals were killed from as close as 15 feet," he said.
The poachers used .22-caliber rifles, he added. The bullets are so small that even in a sanctioned hunt they're illegal to use.
News that as many as 15 of the 29 animals in the new "mainland herd" had been killed was "profoundly disturbing," said Seavoy. He was already working with hunters throughout the region on a plan to let the herd build, much as they had done with moose.
"You can go from 29 to 40 in one year, then to 50 or 55, and in another year to 70," Seavoy said. "Then you're talking about a herd that's capable of supporting a modest hunt. We weren't far from being able to harvest (10 to 12) animals legally and sustainably."
Hunters were sad to hear about killings, said Alakanuk resident Ray Oney, vice-chairman of the Lower Yukon Fish and Game Advisory Committee. His group had recently discussed the mainland musk ox herd and supported Seavoy's idea of letting it grow undisturbed.
In Hooper Bay, Lester Wilde called it "a sad setback" to subsistence hunters. It's at least a 100-mile round trip to get a moose, he said, and some people travel 500 miles. Musk ox would be a welcome addition, Wilde said.
"We're right in an area where we could grow musk ox," and perhaps someday travel only 20 or 30 miles to get fresh meat. "That would be great," he said.
A large bull musk ox will yield 270 pounds of boned-out meat, about half as much as a typical moose, state guidebooks say.
A recent flight over the volcanoes spotted a single musk ox, though Seavoy said others may have wandered off. He believes they'll be back and is optimistic the herd will grow. Hunters on the lower Yukon agreed to stop hunting moose in the 1980s and now the population is pushing 1,000 animals, he said. Lower Kuskokwim hunters recently approved a similar moratorium.
With that same type of protection, the mainland musk ox herd could match the Seward Peninsula's, he said, which now numbers 2,000.
"Maybe this is a good thing in some ways," he said of this winter's poaching. "It's enough that people will be talking about it and realize what they lost."