Track­ing a beast: Musk ox col­lared for study of risk from cli­mate change

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Jen­nifer Harper

Po­lar bears, move over. The musk ox has now lum­bered onto the list of an­i­mals po­ten­tially threat­ened by cli­mate change.

The mere chance has sent the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey, Alaska De­part­ment of Fish and Game, Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety and the Univer­sity of Mon­tana into full re­search mode. This fed­eral, state and aca­demic con­sor­tium has launched a four-year study to de­ter­mine if the musk ox is in­deed en­dan­gered by global warm­ing.

A half dozen of th­ese weighty, woolly crit­ters now sport bat­tery­op­er­ated, satel­lite-linked elec­tronic col­lars that emit global po­si­tion­ing sig­nals so re­searchers can fol­low their treks around the tundra along Alaska’s Chukchi and north­ern Ber­ing seas.

“Col­lar­ing a musk ox is a bit of a chal­lenge. They’ve got so much hair, they’re short and they’re stocky. But th­ese col­lars are state of the art, as high-tech as you can get. We’re go­ing to know where the an­i­mal is within 100 feet,” said Jim Lawler, a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist at Gates of the Arc­tic Na­tional Park and Pre­serve near Fair­banks, Alaska.

An ad­di­tional 30 to 40 oxen will also get col­lars next year in an ef- fort to track their mi­gra­tion and map their habi­tats.

“We’re also look­ing at their daily move­ment, and how they re­act to a weather event, like a heavy snow, or rain on snow,” Mr. Lawler said.

It’s the last type of pre­cip­i­ta­tion that re­searchers worry about. Heavy rain can freeze to thick ice over the lichen and moss on which musk ox and other an­i­mals graze.

“Musk ox are a throw­back to our Pleis­tocene her­itage and once shared the land­scape with mam­moths, wild horses, and sabered cats,” said Joel Berger, a pro­fes­sor of wildlife con­ser­va­tion at the Univer­sity of Mon­tana, who is lead­ing the re­search.

In­deed, the species is def­i­nitely still in touch with its prim­i­tive side.

The musk ox can be up to 8 feet long, 6 feet tall and weigh in at 800 pounds, and its hairy coat can some­times reach the ground.

Musk oxen are also found in Canada, Green­land, Swe­den, Nor­way, Es­to­nia and Rus­sia, with an es­ti­mated world pop­u­la­tion of about 125,000. They are not of­fi­cially en­dan­gered and are ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered game an­i­mals in Alaska, ac­cord­ing to Ron Clarke, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of wildlife conser va­tion in the state’s fish and game agency in Juneau, Alaska.

“I don’t know about any cli­mate- re­lated changes in the musk ox pop­u­la­tion,” Mr. Clarke said. “But you never know what a four-year study can re­veal.”

A graphic YouTube video of a griz­zly bear at­tack on a herd of musk oxen re­cently brought the species onto the pub­lic’s radar, he added.

The snort­ing, cloven-hoofed, oc­ca­sion­ally mal­odor­ous Ovi­bos moscha­tus could be the new sym­bol of global warm­ing in some cir­cles.

“They may help sci­en­tists un­der­stand how arc­tic species can or can­not adapt to cli­mate change,” Mr. Berger said. Some don’t agree, though. “We don’t need yet an­other study, which is even­tu­ally go­ing to con­clude that power-plant emis­sions and hu­man ac­tiv­ity is killing th­ese things off. This is a joke, a cha­rade,” said Steven J. Mil­loy, a pub­lic pol­icy con­sul­tant and cre­ator of Junkscience.com, a blog which de­bunks faulty sci­en­tific find­ings, par­tic­u­larly en­vi­ron­men­tal alarmism.

“If they want to help the musk ox, that’s fine. But what does the musk ox have to do with global warm­ing? Is there any­thing not im­pacted by weather? When base­ball games are rained out, we might as well start ask­ing for fed­eral money to take care of it,” Mr. Mil­loy said.

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