Mekoryuk Residents Seek More Musk Oxen For Local

Residents of Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island are seeking more involvement, and more musk oxen harvest. This is happening as the 20-year-old agreement that guides management is set to undergo changes.

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The harvest of musk oxen is currently split between a registration hunt for cows and a costly permit lottery for bulls that’s largely utilized by out of town sport hunters, led by local guides. Managers have issued just 5 cows for the local registration hunt for the past three years and have given out 30 or more bull permits that mostly go to outsiders.

Mekoryuk’s Dale Smith spoke at a recent meeting in Bethel with state and federal managers.

“The way it stands now, they’re favoring a commercial enterprise over a subsistence way of living. It was evident when they voted on that in early January. Of all the thing we discussed, the main thing is subsistence priority. That’s our stance right now,” said Smith.

82 people signed a petition in Mekoryuk asking for an allocation of more musk ox for residents. They’re seeking 30 more musk oxen which would be taken from the outside permit hunt.

In an effort to take a more active role in management, member of Mekoryuk’s tribal council have formed a federally recognized Tribal Conservation District through the USDA. This program allows groups to help manage natural resources and establish conservation priorities. They can seek funding and build partnerships with other agencies.

They unsuccessfully asked the Alaska Board of Game for an emergency allocation this January. Missing at the meeting in Bethel were the guides and transporters that earn their living working with out-of-town hunters.

There are no predators on Nunivak island, where musk oxen were first introduced in 1936, but it is not necessarily straightforward to manage them. A 1992 agreement sets a goal of maintain a population between 500 to 550 musk oxen, that’s musk ox alive after the hunt, but before calves are born. The island has been below that level since 2009.

There were more cows harvested prior to 2010-2011, but the last few years has shown poor survival of calves. Whereas there used to be around 100 calves per year, now they’re getting more like 60. The bull to cow ratio is also out of balance, getting as high as 138 bulls per 100 cows. Patrick Jones is a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“When you have that many bulls they’re probably injuring a few cows. We’d like to have that ratio around 80 bulls per 100 cows. So we have a surplus of bulls, even though the population is below our objective, it’s to our benefit to lower that bull cow ratio. So we’ve been allowing extra bull harvest. We have it, it’s available, and it’s to the benefit of our population at this point,” said Jones.

The allocation, however, of which hunts get the bulls and cows is up to the Board of Game.

A huge factor is the health of the food supply. The Yukon Delta Nation Wildlfe Refuge does not have current data on the health of the range. The island’s 1,853 reindeer eat on the same territory.

Managers at the meeting agreed to revise the 1992 document that sets the foundation for musk ox management on Nunivak Island. There will be a meeting in March on the island to discuss revisions and meet with stakeholders.

The Board of Game and Federal Subsistence Board are at the end of their two year cycles for taking up proposals, but the group wants to pursue designation of the musk ox as a subsistence priority species.

Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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