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Not Such a Woolly-Brained Idea: Alaskans Try Farming Musk Ox for Luxury Fiber

Musk ox wool is incredibly warm – and extremely pricey. Efforts to domesticate the shaggy Arctic beasts have proven a challenge, but researchers at the University of Alaska’s Large Animal Research Station are having some success.

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Manager Emma Boone prepares for the next muskox feeding at the University of Alaska’s Large Animal Research Station.Gloria Dickie

On a blustery March day at the Large Animal Research Station, just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska, manager Emma Boone plods through the facility’s northern paddock as a pair of teenage musk ox trail behind her, eyeing the feed she carries. Covered in thick hair, their long, curved horns not yet grown, these musk ox are the next generation in a unique experiment at the University of Alaska – domesticating and farming the Arctic animals for their soft, warm under-wool called qiviut.

Musk ox were reintroduced to Alaska in the 1930s, after the state’s native population was extirpated in the 19th century, most likely from hunting. Today, their qiviut is the second most expensive fiber in the world, with spun yarn and knit goods selling for hundreds of dollars. But musk ox domestication has been slow to catch on in the Arctic – for economic and cultural reasons – with nearly all qiviut sourced from wild hunts or sheddings found snagged on the tundra.

However, a feasibility study recently published in ARCTIC Journal found that musk ox domestication could be economically viable. Moreover, as wild populations decline in the Far North, killed off by bacteria typically found in domestic livestock or roaming far away from subsistence communities in search of food, there’s hope a gap in supply could encourage domestication.

Teenage muskox at the Large Animal Research Station have not yet grown their long, curved horns. (Gloria Dickie)

In 1935, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service introduced a small herd of musk ox from Greenland to Alaska’s Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea. There, the musk ox thrived, ballooning to a herd of 750 animals that allowed wildlife managers to seed additional populations on the Seward Peninsula, Cape Thompson and Nelson Island, Wrangel Island, the Taimyr Peninsula and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. At the same time, subsistence Alaska Native communities were struggling with the ability to adapt to cash economies – and therein lay an opportunity. John Teal, an ecologist by trade, established the Institute of Northern Agricultural Research in 1954, endeavoring to capture, domesticate and breed the musk ox in the hope their qiviut could be used by impoverished native communities. He eventually created the Musk Ox Project in 1964, which persists today under the auspices of the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, just north of Anchorage, where 82 musk ox are raised for their underwool.

The Musk Ox Farm and Large Animal Research Station (LARS) are among the few domesticated muskox farms in the world. Every May, the Musk Ox Farm staff herd each animal into a stall where they spend roughly an hour combing out its underwool. The qiviut is then sold in the farm’s gift shop, online and wholesale as a raw fiber to Oomingmak, a knitting cooperative owned by 250 Native Alaskan women who process the qiviut into yarn and knit it into upscale goods.

But the Musk Ox Farm, like LARS, is run as a nonprofit, sourcing income not only from qiviut sales but also from donations and agritourism.

Qiviut yarn is spun at the Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska. (Gloria Dickie)

“There are no commercial farms,” said Laura Starr, lead author on the economic feasibility study of farmed musk ox. That can make it hard to determine the fair market value of farmed qiviut without any baseline. “If there were more farms, the price might actually go up because it would be more in demand. It’s just not a fiber you see in the market often because of supply.”

This made determining the economic feasibility of farmed musk ox challenging, she said, but researchers at the University of Alaska were looking for a way to push the industry forward by creating a preliminary market analysis. While research was done in Teal’s day, there have been advances in musk ox husbandry and fiber processing that could make the market more viable. “There’s a lot of room for growth – luxury goods are one of the fastest-growing segments of the fiber market,” said Starr.

Musk ox are able to thrive on local forage, don’t require protection from the cold and adapt well to many traditional husbandry practices. Under several revenue-generating scenarios, Starr found that selling qiviut as value-added yarn, coupled with livestock sales, would be economically feasible for an established enterprise – excluding start-up costs. Selling qiviut as raw, unprocessed fiber was not projected to break even.

That’s because it’s hard to compete with qiviut sourced from wild populations with very little associated costs, other than paying for a hunting license, known as a tag. “You’re competing with garbage bags full of fiber taken from hunted animals,” said Starr. “And a lot of those animals are not only hunted, but they’re hunted without tags.”

“If someone can sell that fiber raw, and not pay to raise the animal – or even the tag – and you’re trying to compete with that price, it would be really difficult competition,” she added.

Balls of qiviut yarn for sale in the Qiviuk store in Banff, Alberta, Canada. (Gloria Dickie)

But those same wild populations could become less viable as climate change pushes musk ox outside of their usual foraging grounds across the Arctic. In Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, herds provide a substantial amount of the qiviut found on the market, supplying luxury boutiques like Qiviuk in Banff and Lake Louise, Alberta. Over a two-week period each winter, hunters will harvest about 200 musk ox. But in 2012, the hunt was called off when animals moved too far away from the community – and hunters were no longer able to reach them.

In the years that followed, hunters noticed the herds seemed sicker. The Banks Island musk ox population dropped by 63 percent between 2010 and 2014, and the Victoria Island population has declined by 70 percent since 2000, according to a 2015 article in the Canadian Veterinary Journal. Scientists believe an explosion of lungworm and emergence of a bacteria usually found in sheep and goats are likely to blame.

“Musk ox are without a doubt a marker species for climate change,” said Mark Austin, executive director of the Musk Ox Farm. “There’s parasite loading, which requires a certain level of freeze-over to kill them off.” And then there’s rain on snow, he added. It occurs when sudden warm air turns northern snows to rain or slush. Instead of melting the snow, the rainwater seeps down through the snowpack where it pools on top of the frozen soil, blocking off access to ground forage.

“These guys are normally out in January in 10in of snow and it’s not a problem – they can get through it. But then the rain comes and creates 3in of solid ice and they starve,” said Austin. “If those were farmed animals, we’d just keep giving them hay. It would be a huge benefit to the global population of musk oxen if there were people farming them.”

A musk ox stands near the Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska. (Gloria Dickie)

For now, a worldwide network of sustainable musk ox husbandry still seems like a lofty goal, but producers at the Musk Ox Farm and LARS believe progress is being made.

“I feel like we’re really on the cusp,” said Starr. “Wild populations fluctuate, but farming is a stable source, and businesses need to know they have a source every year to produce their product.”

The biggest hold-up, she thinks, is the ability to obtain animals.

“Musk ox live fairly long, but they have an eight-month gestation and only have one calf, so domestication is going to take a while,” said Emma Boone of the Large Animal Research Station. “But you have to start somewhere.”

For an operation that’s up and running, the Musk Ox Farm’s Mark Austin thinks the main problem is how labor-intensive it can be to domesticate and groom an animal. “We’re having a lot of success right now, and though I don’t know if we’d be able to sustain ourselves without nonprofit status, we could be tracking towards that direction.”

“Alaska is one of the least-producing agricultural states in the U.S., but has a huge percentage of land mass,” said Starr. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity.”

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