The Muskox (Ovibos moschatus) is an iconic Canadian species that lives in the high north. The world population is estimated at 120,000 individuals with roughly 85,000 Muskoxen in Canada mostly living north of the Yukon Territories on Banks and Victoria Islands. That number is an approximation because their habitat is so isolated, accurate population counts are expensive and difficult. Muskoxen are currently listed in Canada as a Species of Least Concern.
The isolation of their habitat is also why many Canadians are unfamiliar with Muskoxen and assume they are similar to Bison; however, they are much smaller and less dangerous. An adult Muskox stands about 1.2 metres (4 ft 2 in) at the withers and weighs 200 kg (440 lbs) and they are more closely related to goats than Buffalo.
They likely immigrated to North America across the Bering Sea ice some 90,000 years ago and evolved to tolerate the extreme cold. The guard hairs of the muskoxen winter coat reach almost to the ground and they protect an undercoat that is finer and softer than cashmere and eight times warmer than sheep’s wool. In fact, they are so well insulated that snow that falls on a muskoxen’s back does not melt. That under coat, known by the Inuit word qiviut (ki-vee-oot), is naturally shed every spring and can be made into expensive hats, scarves and other luxury garments.
Polar bears, also known as sea bears (Ursus maritimus), are another primary Canadian species. There are an estimated 26,000 (95% C.I. 22,000 / 31,000) Polar bears worldwide with 16,000 living in Canada where they are listed as a Species of Concern.
Polar bears spend most of their time hunting seals on sea ice. They come ashore only when it melts in the summer and return in the fall as soon as it freezes again. During that summer thaw, Polar bears will forage for berries, bird’s eggs or kelp but those alternate foods do not provide enough calories to keep them from losing weight. Historically, that ice-free period lasted around 100 days but recently, due to climate change, it has increased to 125 days and it is expected to become longer. That additional time without adequate intake means more weight loss and a shorter period on the ice to hunt and consume enough seals to maintain sufficient body condition to produce offspring.
Churchill Manitoba is located on the west coast of Hudson Bay and is considered the Polar bear capital of the world. One of the reasons is the influx of fresh water from the Churchill River which freezes before the salt water. As a result, that portion of Hudson Bay is generally the first to be covered in ice and the bears gather in that area waiting for the ice to form.
Muskoxen were also extirpated from the area around Churchill in 1903 during another commercial hunt and have been absent ever since.
Dr. Charles Fipke is the geologist and prospector who first discovered diamonds in Canada which is now the world’s third largest diamond producer. Chuck spent his life seeking a balance between sustainable economic development and the protection of wildlife and their habitat. To further that cause, he established WildLIfe Canada Society (formerly WildAid Canada Society). One of his long-term ambitions has been to reintroduce Muskoxen into their former range around Churchill for several reasons.
Firstly, every native animal has an impact on their environment and returning Muskoxen will help to rewild that ecosystem. We have an opportunity to bring muskoxen back to their former range and right a wrong that was committed over 100 years ago.
Secondly, Churchill has evolved into a wildlife education center and a world-class eco-tourism destination. Providing visitors with a unique opportunity to see wild Muskoxen along with Polar bears and Beluga whales, all at one destination, would enhance an industry that helps to sustain the city of Churchill, its First Nations residents and the Province of Manitoba.
Harvesting and processing naturally shed qiviut (Muskox undercoat) would allow for a cottage industry for local artisans.
Given time and success, Muskoxen could eventually become another species hunted by indigenous peoples.
Finally, a viable population of Muskoxen could provide Polar bears with an opportunistic food source when the ice is late to return and help them survive a lengthening fasting period.
This is not an unprecedented idea. Muskoxen were commercially hunted to extinction in Alaska but reintroduced in the 1930s. Thirty-four animals were sourced from Greenland and relocated. Today the Alaska population is close to 4000 individuals. Reintroductions have also taken place in Quebec and Russia.
Charles Fipke has agreed to fund an investigation of the viability of reintroducing Muskoxen into Northern Manitoba. We hope this will eventually become a program managed by the First Nations of the Churchill region with cooperation from Regional, Provincial and Federal agencies. It is an ambitious task but with many long-term benefits.