Rural Alaska

Historic musk ox hunt to open on North Slope

A limited musk ox hunt will be available in a portion of the North Slope this summer for the first time since the animals were reintroduced to the region decades ago.

Subsistence hunters living in several North Slope communities — Anaktuvuk Pass, Atqasuk, Utqiagvik, Nuiqsut, Point Hope, Point Lay and Wainwright — have until Friday to apply for one of the six permits to hunt musk ox this year. Hunters who draw the permit will be able to harvest one animal each in the western portion of Game Management Unit 26A, specifically west of Admiralty Bay where the Alaktak River enters, following the Alaktak River south to the unit border. The season will run from August of this year to March 15, 2023.

“It is our understanding that there hasn’t been a musk ox hunt in this area since Alaska’s statehood and wildlife laws were established,” said Melinda Bolton, public affairs specialist at the Bureau of Land Management.

Musk ox hunt North Slope map 2022

Point Hope hunter Steve Oomittuk said that hunting musk ox will bring residents an additional subsistence food source.

“We’re subsistence people,” he said. “This is our meat source. We live off the land, the animals that give themselves to us and give us our identity as a people.”

North Slope residents started noticing the growth of the musk ox population in the area and asked the Federal Subsistence Board to allow them to hunt the animals, according to the North Slope Borough Subsistence Advisory Council. After deeming the population healthy and steadily growing, the Federal Subsistence Board decided to allow subsistence hunters to harvest a total of six animals per season.

Musk oxen — which on average can be about 4 to 5 feet tall and weigh 400 to 800 pounds each — had disappeared from Alaska by the 1920s and were reintroduced to the state in the 1930s. Since then, the population has been steadily growing, for the most part.

“When we were growing up, there was hardly any musk ox,” Oomittuk said. “The population of musk ox is at the highest right now.”

In the western part of the North Slope and Kotzebue Sound areas combined, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated about 576 musk oxen in 2011, 556 in 2016 and 911 in 2020.

“When we realized there is that many musk ox in 26A, we realized there is an opportunity to harvest at least some of them,” said Phillip Perry, regional management coordinator for the department. The hunt on state lands in a portion of Unit 26A will open next fall.

Allowing residents to hunt musk oxen is even more important during a time when the caribou populations are declining, and hunters “don’t see very much meat in the area,” Oomittuk said. Besides, the hunt might help preserve the population of caribou, which, according to Oomittuk and other residents testifying to the Federal Subsistence Board, avoid the smell of musk oxen and change their movement patterns when too many musk oxen are around.

“Musk ox is good eating, although they keep the caribou away sometimes,” Oomittuk said.

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While Oomittuk wants residents to be able to hunt musk oxen, he said that he is not fully happy with how the Federal Subsistence Board decided to open the season.

“It opened as a lottery,” he said. “You have to apply, you have to fill all these things. We are subsistence hunters, a lot of our hunters are not used to applying for hunting licenses or papers. … We’ve never needed this.”

To apply for a musk ox hunt permit, residents should submit before July 29 their name, phone number and/or email, residence address, and mailing address to Beth Mikow at 907-474-2309, or to Ted Inman at 907-474-2311, Applicants who draw a permit will be notified on Aug. 1.

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.