Western Nunavut muskox under pressure from disease, predators, inbreeding
About 56 per cent of the diet in Cambridge Bay still consists of country food
Heaps of coffee beans and non-invasive sampling kits for muskox may reveal more about how food sources change due to social, economic and environmental pressures.
For a research study now underway in Cambridge Bay, participants made piles of beans of varying sizes to show the importance of muskox and other country foods and how much of each they eat now compared with how much they used to eat in the past.
Using the beans as a concrete way of showing percentages, people estimated that, since 1960, country foods have dropped to 56 per cent of the diet from 78 per cent, according to a recent presentation in Cambridge Bay of the study’s preliminary results by researcher Matilde Tomaselli of the University of Calgary.
Judging from those bean piles and what participants said, caribou, fish and muskox now appear to be the three top-ranked country foods, Tomaselli said.
But as caribou and muskox increased in popularity, their numbers nosedived, her graphs show.
For another part of the research study, 30 hunters with the Ekalututiak Hunters and Trappers Organization received muskox sampling kits.
With these kits, they sampled muskox blood for disease testing, bones for measurement and body condition, feces for parasite testing and hair for stress measurement.
The results from those samples will be ready later this year.
But, during interviews for the research study, changing weather, predation, lack of vegetation and new diseases were among the reasons suggested for the poor state of muskox.
With their keen eyesight, cozy fur and shovel-like hooves, the “umingmait” or “animals with skin like a beard” adapted well to life in the polar desert for 90,000 years — but now there’s concern their health may be endangered.
An estimated 30,000 muskox roamed near Cambridge Bay in 2012, and biologists said then the roughly 400 tags that the HTO handed out every year for the commercial and sports hunts barely touched the population’s robust numbers.
But muskox no longer commonly roam near the community.
The commercial harvest was called off in 2012, and has yet to be reinstated.
Muskox are also increasingly affected by lung worm — which can’t be passed on to people, but can weaken the animals.
As well, muskox are susceptible to cases of Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae, a bacterial infection, spreading from Banks Island. The bacteria is usually found in livestock, such as pigs or turkeys.
In people, contact with the bacteria can cause rashes, skin lesions and even blood poisoning if it’s not treated with antibiotics.
Some researchers have also suggested that, as a population, muskox may suffer from what’s called “inbreeding depression.”
This means that there’s a lack of fitness in the herd, a result of too much mating between related animals.
Add new predators and climate change to that mix, and muskox could be facing hard times, which could be eased by a health monitoring program for muskox, which is the long-term goal of the research on muskox in Cambridge Bay.