During the next few days, many athletes will compete in the winter Olympics, hoping to be bigger and better than the competition, win gold, and break a record. In 2002, Craig D. Scott joined the ranks of a different group of world record holders when he shot a world record muskox in Norman Wells, Northwest Territories.
Muskoxen are true Arctic champions; they can happily survive temperatures as cold as -40°C. This is mainly due to their amazing coat, which consists of a wooly inner layer and a hairy outer layer. It was the demand for this warm coat that brought muskoxen to the edge of extinction in the early 1900s. With the arrival of traders, Europeans and guns in the north in the 1890s, thousands of muskoxen were killed for muskox robes. Hundreds more were shot, sometimes whole herds, by polar explorations parties and by sports hunters. The mainland populations were exploited so heavily that at one point, only a few hundred animals remained.
The earliest proposals to establish protection for the species came from sport hunters who travelled up north to claim a muskox trophy. Many wondered if the beast really was a target for a “true sporting gentleman”, as the hunts usually involved corralling the animals using dogs. In response, muskoxen would form a stationary defensive circle, making them easy targets for hunters with guns. However, it wasn’t until the incessant lobbying of the arctic explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, in the 1910s that the Canadian government took notice of the plight of the muskox.
In 1917, the government put the muskox under protection, and in 1924, there was a complete ban on muskox hunting in the Northwest Territories. Since then, recovery has been slow, but steady. Today, muskoxen have recolonized most of their old range and are now listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Hunting is currently allowed under tightly regulated quotas, which allows hunting for both subsistence and sport, bringing economic stimulation to vulnerable northern communities. Shooting a prize-winning muskox in Norman Wells is a testament to the successful protection of this species, because only a few decades ago there were few to be found.
But it’s not over yet. Recent and severe mortality events, climate change, emerging diseases, and evidence of population declines of muskoxen in the western Arctic archipelago are of concern. With 75% of the world’s population of muskoxen found in Canada, it is important that biologists, governments, First Nations and Inuit all work together to ensure that this prehistoric and charismatic animal can continue to roam the Arctic tundra.