Luckily, we have not had a bad wildfire season in Alaska for 2021. We did have a fire flare up close to Fairbanks late last week, when smokejumpers, seen above, landed at UAF’s LARS location, where the herd of muskox can be seen roaming the hills. From the muskox field, the smokejumpers hiked the half mile to the fire’s location. That fire was quickly under control, and the firefighters went back to the Munson Creek fire soon after they were dispatched.
With just under 180,000 acres burned within the state so far this season, it puts us roughly equal with 2020 and within the lowest range of burned area since 2008. The Interior remains in a burn ban, but historically, 2/3 of acreage within a season has burned by July 15.
Figures,facts, graphics and video all from the Alaska Division of Forestry
We toured the University of Alaska’s Large Animal Research Station late this summer. LARS is located on the old 130 acre Yankovich homestead, which is basically adjacent to the Fairbanks campus. Originally homesteaded by Mike Yankovich in 1923, Yankovich donated the property to the University in 1963.
For much of the summer, tours had been cancelled due to Covid-19, but late in August, small groups were allowed to visit the research station. Our group of three, joined two groups of two, for a total of seven. Masks were required. Like most outdoor Alaska activities, social distance was not hard to maintain.
Muskoxen and reindeer are the most common animals at LARS, although at times other large animals, such as other bovines, are studied. Research is run by University scientists, but projects from all around the globe are supported here. This includes both wildlife, and veterinary studies.
Both the male and female muskoxen have horns, although the males are much larger. A male muskox can be 5 feet at the shoulder and weigh 600-800 pounds. A female usually runs a foot shorter, and can weigh between 400 and 500 pounds.
They have two types of hair: guard hair and qiviut. Qiviut is the very soft underwool nearest the body. It traps air, therefore acting as an insulator. The qiviut is shed every summer and can be spun into a fine yarn. In fact, LARS collects the quviut when the animals shed, and sells the yarn in their gift shop and online.
The guard hair is the long, coarse outer hair, that often hangs to the ground. It protects the qiviut. The insulation is so good, that snow on a muskox back will not melt from the animals body heat. It also allow them to live in the harsh Arctic climate without migrating or hibernating.
As the last ice age closed, muskoxen thrived across northern Europe & Asia, North America, and Greenland. By the mid 1800’s, muskoxen were gone from Europe and Asia, and by the 1920’s they had disappeared from Alaska.
In 1930, 34 animals were captured in Greenland, brought to Fairbanks and then transferred to Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea. The population took off. By 1968, Nunivak had 750 muskoxen. Since then, Nunivak muskoxen have repopulated several areas in Alaska, and even in Russia. Today, Alaska has a muskox population of roughly 4300. Of the 143,000 global population, Canada has by far the most with a population of 121,000.
LARS also had a population of 42 reindeer when we visited. Considered domesticated caribou in North America, reindeer can also be found across the Arctic.
The caribou population can have major ups and downs across any given range, although they have never been threatened in Alaska. Currently, of the 4-1/2 million animals world-wide, Alaska has a population of 900,000.
Since I already have written a post on caribou, with the Alaska Big Five series, I won’t repeat all of that.
With the warming of the Arctic, research at LARS is in as high demand as ever.