- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

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

The mere chancehas 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, wooly critters now sport battery-operated, satellite-linked electronic collars which 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.

Another 30-40 oxen will also get collars next year in an effort 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 their primitive side.

Up to 8 feet long, 6 feet tall and weighing in at 800 pounds, their 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 conservation in the state’s fish and game agency in Juneau.

“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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