A limited subsistence hunt of musk ox in Northwest Alaska has been canceled for the season after five illegally taken carcasses were discovered.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game suspended the five permits it had planned to release for public use in Unit 23, northwest of the Noatak River.
The illegal harvest was discovered during a February fly-over of the area, said Fish and Game biologist Jim Dau of Kotzebue.
"One of the planes found what they thought were a couple of dead musk ox," Dau said. Alaska State Troopers were notified, and Wildlife Trooper Justin McGinnis flew to the site to find five dead musk ox cows.
"He was certain they had been shot and left," Dau said. "When the trooper got up there and found five cows that were dead, we thought we've already taken more than we wanted to take."
The Tier II harvest allows five bulls to be taken for subsistence use, not cows.
That particular hunt has been running for more than 10 years, Dau said. It normally runs from August until March.
The few permits are tough to get. Applicants answer multiple questions to help Fish and Game gauge their need for subsistence access. That includes information about where they live, the cost of food, cost of gas, the amount of time the hunter has spent in or lived in the area, that hunter's history with the region and the hunt, and many other factors.
Applications are then scored, and the top scores receive a permit. Only if several people tie in the high-score range does the permitting process revert to a lottery-style system.
"It's a very restricted pool," Dau said. "It's not like the recreational hunts."
When the illegally taken cows are added to the five legally taken bulls from the 2012-2013 season, management decided herd conservation required a hunting hiatus.
The National Parks Service also runs a federal musk ox hunt, giving out only two permits a year.
The northwestern musk ox herd was estimated at 227 animals during last spring's count, Dau said. The herd has been migrating in recent years, away from the core coastal range they've typically inhabited. They've moved toward Unit 26A, between Cape Lisburne and the Alaska-Canada border, and the foothills of the Brooks Range.
"It's much bigger than it was 15-20 years ago," Dau said of the herd. Those increasing numbers were what allowed state game manager to open the hunt a decade ago, he said, but protecting that growth requires tight regulation and conservation decisions when numbers are threatened.