Why do musk oxen live in Dovrefjell?
Musk oxen originally come from Alaska, Arctic Canada and Greenland. So why do they live in Dovrefjell?
In 1913, two vertebrae of a large musk ox were found 9 meters underground in a railway cutting at Innset, north of Oppdal. The vertebrae were not appreciably worn indicating that they did not come from very far away. The find site is located about 50 km northeast of the musk oxen’s current habitat range in Dovrefjell, i.e. the modern-day herd lives in the same areas where musk oxen lived in earlier times, i.e. more than 30,000 years ago before the last ice age.
When musk oxen came to Dovrefjell
On 7 October 1932, ten musk oxen (three males and seven females) from Greenland were released west of Hjerkinn station in Dovrefjell. One male and one female had been born in 1930, and the other eight were spring calves. In the autumn after their release, they migrated 15–25 km northwards, settling among the steep mountains there. The winter of 1933–1934 was very snowy in the mountains and two males and three females were killed by avalanches in Hesthågåhø in 1934. Attempts were made to get more animals for release, which resulted in the release of a one-year-old calf and a spring calf in 1938.
In the years 1935–1941, a total of four calves were observed, but more were probably born. The experiment was successful seeing that the animals had reproduced, but after the Second World War, no more musk oxen were left. Some claim that German soldiers had hunted them down and wiped out the herd, but this is not true. German soldiers shot two males, but the rest of the animals met their deaths at the hands of Norwegians or died from accidents.
When musk oxen returned to Dovrefjell
In the years 1947–1953, a total of 24 calves and 3 spring calves were brought from Greenland to Dovrefjell. Eleven of them were released in Dovrefjell right away, while 16 were herded into an enclosure at the farm of John Angard in Dombås to be released later on. Unfortunately, illness and several accidents resulted in only ten animals being left alive in August 1953. Some of these animals are the progenitors of the herd found in Dovrefjell today.
Several studies of the herd were made in the years 1966–1973. The herd increased from 22 to 37 animals from 1967 to 1973. Since the herd comprised so few animals, researchers could recognize all the animals that were more than two years old. This enabled the researchers to follow each animal from year to year. The researchers returned to Dovrefjell in July 1978, and a severe thunderstorm occurred on the evening of 5 July. A powerful stroke of lightning killed an entire group of twelve animals, reducing the herd to 39.
In the past 20 years, the number of musk oxen has increased so that in the winter of 2019 there were about 240 musk oxen in Dovrefjell. About 50 calves are now born every year, but the musk oxen population is threatened by several hazards.
Will musk oxen survive in Dovrefjell?
The musk oxen obtained from Greenland were adapted to an environment with few diseases or parasites. This means that the animals in Dovrefjell have little resistance to infectious diseases coming from livestock, wild reindeer and other deer. There have been several outbreaks of muzzle favus and pneumonia in recent years. Young animals in particular are stricken by disease, and the mortality rate among calves has been high in some years.
Musk oxen are adapted to a cold climate and cannot withstand too much heat. Climate change results in milder winters with more ice and harder snow, which can make it difficult for musk oxen to find food.
Some musk oxen are hit by trains, and any musk oxen that wander out of Dovrefjell are killed when dangerous situations arise during encounters with people.
People can also pose a threat. Dovrefjell’s musk oxen are well known in both Norway and abroad, and many people come to Dovrefjell to experience them up close. When many people are in the mountains, this can be stressful for musk oxen. Therefore, it is important to respect them whenever you are moving through the mountains. We recommend that you read the musk oxen code of conduct before embarking on a trip on your own or, preferably, visit them on a guided musk ox safari.
If you would like to read more about musk oxen and how they are managed, the management plan for the musk oxen stock at Dovrefjell is a good source (in Norwegian only).