By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Thirty-two musk oxen were found dead in the ice along the Bering Strait, apparently killed when they drowned in water that surged ashore during a winter storm, the National Park Service said on Tuesday.
The dead animals were found frozen and entombed in shoreline ice at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in northwestern Alaska, the Park Service said. It is suspected that up to 23 more musk oxen may have died in the same event, their bodies buried deeper in the ice, the Park Service said.
The animals, some fitted with radio collars and being tracked as part of a five-year study, were last seen alive in mid-February, said John Quinley, spokesman for the Park Service in Alaska.
They apparently fell victim to a storm later in the month that sent waves up to eight feet higher than normal tide lines, Quinley said.
"The water came up. They didn't leave. And eventually, they all drowned," he said.
There are about 1,000 musk oxen on Alaska's Seward Peninsula, a section of land where the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve is located, Quinley said. The potential loss of 50 or so animals is not considered "a population-changing event," he said.
Scientists plan to return to the site to retrieve teeth and bone samples and to try to determine the dead animals' ages, he said.
There was talk of trying to remove the animals' bodies from the ice in which they are locked, "but it didn't seem very practical to do that," he said.
The Park Service does expect wolves, bears and other animals to scavenge the area, Quinley said. But the agency has warned local villagers the meat is unfit for human consumption and that retrieval of horns from national park lands is not legal.
Musk oxen, related to sheep, roamed the tundra and steppes during the Pleistocene era and are among the most famous Ice Age survivors of the far north.
They are known for their special abilities to withstand the Arctic winters. They have warm, soft hair, called "qiviut," which is shed in the spring and knitted into pricey garments, and a habit of huddling together to protect their young from predators.
There are about 125,000 in the world, mostly in Canada and Greenland, according to state and federal agencies.
Alaska has a few thousand, all of them descendants of animals brought to the territory in 1935 from Greenland by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Alaska's indigenous population had disappeared by the early 20th century.
The current Alaska population is scattered among remote sites in northern and western Alaska, including the edges of the Bering Strait, and some animals live in farms and at a zoo in Anchorage.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Jerry Norton)