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Musk oxen gather near Bethel for the first time

Devin Kelly
Photo Courtesy Anne Kosacheff A group of Muskox have gathered across the Kuskokwim River from Bethel on Monday, December 2, 2013. The Muskox were originally part of a heard on Nelson Island in the Bering Sea. 72 year old Bethel resident Bea Kristovich said this is the first time she has seen Muskox from Bethel.
Anne Kosacheff
Photo Courtesy Anne Kosacheff A group of Muskox have gathered across the Kuskokwim River from Bethel on Monday, December 2, 2013. The Muskox were originally part of a heard on Nelson Island in the Bering Sea. 72 year old Bethel resident, Bea Kristovich said this is the first time she has seen Muskox from Bethel.
Anne Kosacheff
Photo Courtesy Anne Kosacheff A group of Muskox have gathered across the Kuskokwim River from Bethel on Monday, December 2, 2013. The Muskox were originally part of a heard on Nelson Island in the Bering Sea. 72 year old Bethel resident Bea Kristovich said this is the first time she has seen Muskox from Bethel.
Anne Kosacheff
Photo Courtesy Anne Kosacheff A group of Muskox have gathered across the Kuskokwim River from Bethel on Monday, December 2, 2013. The Muskox were originally part of a heard on Nelson Island in the Bering Sea. 72 year old Bethel resident Bea Kristovich said this is the first time she has seen Muskox from Bethel.
Anne Kosacheff
Photo Courtesy Anne Kosacheff A group of Muskox have gathered across the Kuskokwim River from Bethel on Monday, December 2, 2013. The Muskox were originally part of a heard on Nelson Island in the Bering Sea. 72 year old Bethel resident Bea Kristovich said this is the first time she has seen Muskox from Bethel.
Anne Kosacheff

Bea Kristovich's morning had barely started when her next-door neighbor called and told her to look out the window.

From her home on the Bethel waterfront, Kristovich saw the movement of large, shaggy animals on the opposite bank of the frozen Kuskokwim River.

It was a group of musk oxen, in plain view of Bethel for the first time. Kristovich, 72, rushed to throw on her winter coat, hat and shoes and head outside for a better look.

"To tell you the truth, I was so thrilled," said Kristovich, a lifelong resident. "I never thought I'd see the day that we'd see musk ox right in Bethel."

Since Sunday, the sight of more than 20 musk oxen across the river from Bethel has delighted residents and a state wildlife biologist, who say the animals have never before been visible from town roads.

Musk ox have colonized parts of western Alaska since the first half of the century, but the animal's mainland presence only dates back to the 1970s. The federal government first introduced musk ox to Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea west of Bethel in the mid-1930s. In the 1960s, state and federal authorities brought the animals to Nelson Island, also west of Bethel, said Patrick Jones, an assistant area wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game in Bethel.

A healthy population of more than 700 musk oxen now live on Nelson Island. But over the last four decades, musk ox have trickled away to the mainland in the winter -- a development encouraged by state biologists, who want to establish a population of musk ox there, Jones said.

Most of the musk oxen on the mainland have stayed along the coast. A few groups have entered the Bethel area, but not close enough to be observed from the road, Jones said. In the last two years, just two lone musk oxen have come near town.

Then, this spring, a large group of more than 40 musk oxen tried to cross the Kuskokim River by the mouth of the Gweek River. The animals didn't quite make it, and the big group split in half, into two herds, Jones said.

One ended up by the village of Akiachak, and the other ended up on a 20-mile island across the river from Bethel, between Church Slough and Napaskiak Slough, Jones said.

Musk ox aren't strong swimmers, and the herd outside of Bethel ended up trapped on the island all summer. But over the last week and a half, the Kuskokwim froze up, and the musk oxen moved.

Kristovich first spotted the musk oxen on Sunday. Along the frozen Kuskokwim River directly across from town, locals could witness the herd -- an intact group of bulls, cows and calves -- lounging on the beach in the open, Jones said.

Some wildlife observers have watched this particular group slowly work its way toward Bethel since leaving Nelson Island a number of years ago. One of those observers, Michael Hoffman, the executive vice president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, said he first saw the musk oxen up close last summer, in one of the sloughs above Bethel.

On Monday morning, he looked out his office window to see the herd gathered on the bank of the crescent-shaped island directly across from town.

"Sitting there, looking at the bright lights of Bethel ...it's neat to see them so close," said Hoffman, who was born and raised in Bethel.

He said ice fishermen have set up on the river as the animals congregated on the point, and snowmachines have passed by on winter trails. Some have driven down to the sea wall with binoculars, and others have walked out on the ice for a better look.

The strong local curiosity prompted authorities this week to warn people about keeping their distance.

On Tuesday, state troopers, deluged by phone calls from concerned residents, issued a musk ox safety advisory for Bethel. The advisory contained safe viewing rules, and also warned that musk ox are particularly aggressive toward dogs, which are seen as predators.

"(Musk ox) are wild animals, just like moose," said Megan Peters, a troopers spokeswoman.

In a public service announcement recorded Tuesday with the radio station KYUK, Hoffman said he also urged residents to be cognizant and careful.

No specific musk ox related incidents have been reported, but some people have gotten a little too close with motor vehicles, Jones said. Musk ox have different personalities than most other animals -- unlike moose or caribou, muskox, a distant relative of goats and sheep, aren't likely to run away when approached by humans, and could become aggressive.

Aside from safety concerns, biologists like Jones saw the presence of the muskox as a positive. The state is hoping to build momentum for increasing the mainland musk ox population, currently estimated at between 150-200 animals with a hunting moratorium in place on the mainland.

Even after entering the mainland for decades, poaching has kept musk ox numbers low until fairly recently, Jones said.

"Maybe these can be the poster-child ones," Jones said.

 


By DEVIN KELLY
dkelly@adn.com