Great Slave Lake’s East Arm teems with life. Its waters hold the lake’s biggest trout and off its shores is dense boreal forest full of black bears, moose, sometimes caribou, wolves and foxes. Look closer and you’ll see spiderwebs on the branches of black spruce, mortuaries for mosquitoes and black flies and buffets for the webs' weavers. The spruce is surrounded by Labrador tea, and juniper berries lie farther away on bedrock. On the tree’s lower, dead branches hang Old Man’s Beard, a wispy lichen that makes good firestarter. All these things are here, have been here, belong here. On the tree’s middle branches, caught between green needles, is something that does not: A long wisp of qiviut, the wool that muskoxen shed in the spring after it kept them warm through an Arctic winter. Neither the Inuktitut word for the wool nor the animal it comes from is local. Its home is above the treeline, among the tundra hills and Arctic islands. Yet here it is.
Ninety years ago, in 1927, the Government of Canada estimated there were only a couple hundred muskoxen left on the mainland of North America, believed to be hunted to near extinction by fur traders that fed the hides to a thriving robe market. (It could be quite chilly to travel by horse and carriage without one.) Most of the muskoxen were driven back to a tundra oasis around the Thelon River. So with pen and paper the government placed around them a protective boundary, the Thelon Game Sanctuary, and they were given the space to recover. By the 1970s, canoeists on the Thelon River saw hundreds. And in the 1980s, Inuit hunters started noticing them close to the coast, to the north and east ends of Canada’s mainland tundra. Sure signs of health. But in the 1990s, canoeists on the Thelon River—still a lush oasis full of the willow and grasses muskoxen love—began to see less and less of them. And then, in the 2000s, hunters from Łutsel K'e, off the East Arm, saw something they’d never seen or heard of among the trees: a lone muskox, short with long, shaggy hair meant to protect it from tundra winds. Then they saw another, and another. Then muskoxen started popping up near Great Bear Lake and further south, near the Saskatchewan border.
“Lots of things like that are happening, changes,” says Herman Catholique, a Denesoline man from Łutsel K'e who spends much of his time on the land. “With caribou too. And birds.” He’s seen the muskoxen move a little farther south every two years, but he’s also seen an abundance of food for them on the tundra. The migration doesn’t make sense. “I listen to what my grandfather used to tell me: There will come a time when the muskox and the buffalo are going to meet together. When they do, when they meet together, that’s some kind of warning. The muskox, they know things are happening. They see things. Might be something that’s going to happen up north, who knows? I always listen to my grandparents.” We have stories passed on from the people who knew this land, its flora and fauna, and who could read the changes in it. But the climate is changing, the land is changing rapidly, and the animals have become unpredictable. And now that the muskoxen have ventured below the treeline, the question to which no one has a clear answer is: Why?
“I went down the Thelon one year,” says Hall, “and there was a bull in this little thicket of willow. I came back two weeks later and he was still there.”
“If you look on the map, it’s probably the most enticing river because it’s about as far as you can get away from towns and roads.” Alex Hall may know the Thelon River better than any living person. He first paddled on it in 1971 and has been guiding paddlers on it every summer since 1975. A biologist by trade, Hall has watched it closely and kept detailed diaries on every trip.
Stretching about 260 kilometres through the tundra, the Thelon is a low-elevation river abutted by shrubs and grasses, with a particularly long stretch of forest. You could get out of your canoe and wander among possibly thousand-year-old spruce and think you’re in the boreal forest, then climb 100 feet up a hill to see the vegetation disappear and the Barrenlands roll out to the horizon. It’s no wonder the muskoxen thrived here. So did the caribou, before the herds began to disappear, and the wolves that fed on them. But now, though the trees and willows and grasses are still plentiful, says Hall, “the wildlife is a mere shadow of what it was 40 years ago.”
Muskoxen do not migrate. They band together into large groups in the winter, but in the summer they live in small groups—usually a dominant bull and a harem of females, sometimes calves and younger members. They graze grasses and browse for willow tips. They don’t actually move much at all. “I went down the Thelon one year,” says Hall, “and there was a bull in this little thicket of willow. I came back two weeks later and he was still there.”
Muskoxen are still in the Thelon sanctuary; there are just fewer of them. And when Hall has seen them, he hasn’t seen many calves. That’s a clue. Another: Coinciding with the muskox exodus, Hall has observed a rise in grizzly bears. He hadn’t seen any in his first six or seven years paddling the river, but in the ’90s he started seeing lots of them—as many as 11 on one trip. His theory is the grizzlies have been working around the bulls and preying on the calves, and that bands of muskoxen have taken their young and tried to move away from the threat, in every direction.
An Inuk elder, back from hunting, recently shared an interesting story with wildlife biologists in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut, which is the western coast of Hudson Bay and into the mainland. He watched a grizzly bear challenging a small group of muskoxen, positioned in the defensive formation the species is famous for using: the adults form a circle to protect the calves, of which in this case there were three. The dominant bull kept coming out to meet the bear and the bear kept charging at it from different angles. The bull got more and more nervous against the relentless bear, and then the bear slipped past it into the group. The dominant bull got confused and broke away, and the rest of the circle broke with him.
The elder, watching from atop a hill, then saw something quite curious: The grizzly ran right past the calves and kept chasing the adults until they crested a hill, and once they did, it sat down on the hill.
Muskox calves are tender-hearted furballs with huge brown eyes—eyes that, unfortunately, deceive them. When they lose sight of their herd, they go to the next big, moving thing they see believing it’s their mother: be it a goose, human, helicopter, or bear. As the grizzly bear sat on the hill, one by one, the three calves ran to it, and one by one, it slaughtered them. The bear had demonstrated and ruthlessly wielded a knowledge of the muskox psyche. It spent no more energy than it had to, and let the calves come to it.
Mitch Campbell, the Government of Nunavut’s regional biologist for the Kivalliq, says grizzly bear predation is the working theory of why muskoxen have spread out so far beyond the Thelon, but he’s quick to caution against certainty. From airplanes, biologists can see fewer muskoxen groups with fewer calves in grizzly territory and then larger groups with more calves to the north and east, but they can’t see other, possibly huge, factors like disease (as with the muskoxen on Victoria Island; once abundant, they have been thinned out by lungworm), invisible changes in food sources (vegetation that’s grazed for a long period of time can become unpalatable), and insect harassment (on the tundra, there's nowhere to hide from mosquitoes and black flies). In nature, the reasons for a major change like this are almost never just one clear thing; they’re often an amalgamation of many different issues. “Northern hunters in Saskatchewan have been finding muskox pretty regularly down in the trees now,” says Campbell. “We’ve seen that before but we assumed that once a group went down in the trees it wouldn’t be long before the predators [more plentiful below the treeline] would do them in, but we were wrong. That just shows you some of the things that we do think of often turn out to be incorrect because we’re not looking at all the mechanisms that are at play here.”
But. “The distributional shifts of the muskox we’re seeing right now tend to be on the outskirts of where grizzly bears are most commonly found,” says Campbell. And they’re doing well there. Population estimates have risen in the central Kivalliq from 1,325 in 1999 to 2,041 in 2010, and in the northern Kivalliq from 1,522 in 2000 to 2,341 in 2012. There’s certainly not a glut, and populations seem to be stabilizing rather than all out booming, but this is evidence of health outside of the Thelon—at a time when other species are not doing so well. Campbell doesn’t believe, as some do, that muskoxen and caribou are competing for food, but with muskoxen in the area year-round, the region can support a larger number of predators that can then go after caribou. In the animal kingdom, everything affects everything.
The North is changing. Shrubbery is slowly encroaching on the tundra and the year-round sea-ice is lessening. Rampant forest fires have raged across the boreal forest for the past few years, altering habitats throughout the Northwest Territories. Mining and exploration, the only industry with any economic weight in the territories, is disrupting the rhythms of the land.
We saw changes first with the caribou, which have always been the food of choice for indigenous Northerners both above and below the treeline. Almost every herd across the North is in serious decline, and some may have disappeared completely. But changes like this are not completely unheard of.
“In the North, the growing season is short,” says Campbell. “Vegetation really has to fight and struggle to bloom and get its seeds out and then the growing season’s finished. The North is not a super productive place in most areas ... so you need a lot more land to actually service an ungulate the size of a caribou or a muskox.” Obviously it can; it has for thousands of years. But there’s a cycle, and vegetation, predation and disease all play a role in that cycle. When thousands of caribou revisit the same grounds year after year, they can “eat themselves out of health and home,” says Campbell. “So there has to be a correction. It can’t be sustained. One of the biggest myths people have is ‘Oh, we can manage these caribou to stay high [in numbers] all the time.” You can’t, because the landscape can not support it.” Traditional knowledge—stories passed down among Inuit and Dene in the area with rigid diligence to detail—tells of these cycles. But that doesn’t mean humanity can’t impede upon these cycles and influence them.
The North has never seen a time like this. Its hunters have never had the weapons and easy transportation they have now, which make it much easier to hunt; the internet now allows hunters to sell caribou for $300 to $500 a pop, creating much more incentive to hunt; mineral development is coming into areas that are extremely sensitive to life cycles, like caribou calving grounds, and will have unavoidable effects. “So all these things are happening,” says Campbell, “and what we’re really scared of”—that’s government, biologists, and hunting and trapping organizations across the Kivalliq, who are very savvy to the threats against the species and want to protect it—“is we’re not in the same situation we have been in, in past years, when these caribou herds have cycled, and what we’re worried about is that these cycles might go much lower and stay much longer, and the peaks won’t reach as high as they used to.”
Life is resilient—as the harsh, lush North shows better than anywhere else in the world—but only to an extent, and with time to adapt to change. Technological advancement is inevitable and unstoppable. Hunting, resource development and transportation are made easier every year; people, particularly in the West, are living longer with each medical advancement, still having kids, and our population is growing. The ramifications of change can be hard to see, and blame almost never falls on one certain factor. But that’s our call to action to watch the animals with more vigilance than ever, to note changes, to listen to traditional knowledge and fund biological studies.
And when a muskox is seen among the trees, we’re right to ask, “Why?” If we want to live with, and off, these animals, it’s our duty.