WILD HARVEST: Trophy Musk Ox 101

Canada offers great opportunities to hunt musk ox, and ours are likely the largest in the world. Hunting scenarios can range between frigid snowmobile or dogsled rides in a wintery landscape, to late summer hunts in pleasant weather, using motor boats to patrol the shorelines of the Arctic, rivers, lakes and coastlines. I prefer the latter! Let me describe to you what’s involved from a guide’s perspective.

 

Finding them – feast or famine

Finding musk ox can be a daunting task in the vast emptiness we call the Barren Lands. In my experience while guiding hunters in the Northwest Territories, musk ox strongly favoured certain areas over others, for reasons known only to them. Be it seasonally or otherwise, the animals can give you a place to start looking – somewhat predictable in their behaviour. Local or traditional knowledge can be a real asset.

Next, huge amounts of land are covered in search of the animals. High spots such as ridges or small peaks of pre-historic volcanic formation are pivotal in getting a bird’s eye view of the area, assisted with quality optics.

Another strategy is to slowly cruise vast stretches of shoreline. More similar to a moose hunt, hopes are to catch a glimpse of some musk ox cresting a ridge or up ahead. When you do find them, it’s usually under one of two scenarios: either you locate a herd complete with bulls, cows and calves ranging from say 20 to 40 animals (more typical) or you stumble upon a lone, outcast bull that has been ostracised from the herd.

 

Choosing the correct animal

Just finding a musk ox is not good enough. It’s important to find the right musk ox. These animals are known to exhibit a more closed population in comparison to other species that mix readily. Remote herds are well associated and the dominant bull has earned his place above others due simply to natural selection. He is the biggest and the strongest, and thus has breeding rights to spread those prime genetics. From the perspective of trophy hunting, it’s important not to cull the best genes from these herds, and so choosing the right animal for harvest must be a careful and educated decision. No pressure on the part of the guide! No doubt, experience with musk ox in the field is the best tool in your arsenal. Now I’m no expert, but I’ve guided for musk ox before, and what I look for is a bull past his prime, in terms of age and body condition. I feel this is a win-win scenario on behalf of the hunters and the local musk ox, and I’ll tell you why. The old, regressing bull most likely had his run as the dominant herd bull, thus spread his seed to the fullest during those years. Now pushed out by a younger bull in his prime, he is approaching the end of his natural life and is a no-net loss. Being the world’s largest member of the sheep family, however, their horns continue to grow throughout the course of their life. For this reason, lone bulls are typically high scoring animals, and make for an ethical trophy hunt.

More often than not, it’s a small herd that’s encountered. This is where you need to sit, observe and study them to determine if the correct animal is present. I like set up in a concealed vantage point within a kilometre of the herd, and glass them with a critical eye. Unless they are on the move, there is usually in no great rush, offering the time needed to carefully inspect each animal. It’s important to decipher their interactions to establish who is the dominant herd bull, who are the up and comers and who is old and on the outs. To the untrained eye, they can all appear the same, but much is riding on the judgement of the guide. The dominant bull will typically be the most aggressive this time of year, challenging or chasing away contenders. He will also have a big, impressive body to match his aggressive temperament. Ideally, this is a bull to pass on, but watch the ones he instigates with. We are looking for one with a huge set of horns coming up past the eye, big bony bosses, a less feisty attitude and a slightly more regressed body compared to the dominant herd bull. With any luck, this outcast is pushed away from the herd towards us for a quick, clean ethical shot – and there you have it. Trophy musk ox 101.

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