History of the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station

Article by Lesa Hollen

The Large Animal Research Station was created in 1979 with a major grant from the National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs. Dr. Robert G. White, associate professor of Zoophysiology, was the principal investigator that had been awarded a $411,000 grant by NSF for the research on the new musk ox project.

The intent was to establish a colony of muskoxen that would be available for nutritional, physiological, and behavioral research. Also, to provide a location close to the university where research could take place on large wild ungulates in captivity. The Institute of Arctic Biology (IAB) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, administers LARS.

Appropriations from the State of Alaska and continuing budgetary increments through IAB have promoted ongoing research facility upgrades and visitor program with new viewing pens, footpaths, and tour guides. LARS offers public tours of the research station Please click on link at bottom of the article for summer tour schedule times.

The facility also boasts a new gift shop and visitor pavilion. The estimated $60,000 in improvements was made possible in part by funds from the travel company Holland America Westours, Inc. "The university matched Holland America's grant and LARS will have to pay that sum back over the next few years", said the station supervisor Bill Hauer. The upgrades to all fencing and handling areas have greatly enhanced animal and personnel handling safety and increased containment security. Planners at the station hope to continue the improvements over the next decade, with the main goal being the construction of a visitor's center.

LARS is located on a former homestead established by Mr. Mike Yankovich, who donated the property to the university on October 12, 1963 "to conduct Muskox research" and was called the "Muskox Farm." In 1964, anthropologist John J. Teal Jr. had envisioned a cottage-based textile industry producing qiviut that would not only help the muskox that was close to extinction, but also help the impoverished villages of Coastal Alaska. They captured 34 muskoxen from Nunivak Island and transported them to the Muskox Farm in Fairbanks, which started the basic muskox domestication project.

In 1975, a contagious virus was depleting the herd at the farm and they were moved to Unalakleet Alaska. In 1986, there were problems of food resources not being available and shipping bales of hay to the Alaskan Bush was too expensive. The herd was moved to Talkeetna temporarily, until the new Muskox Farm could be built in Palmer. That same year the herd was moved to Palmer, their current residence.

The Muskox Farm in Palmer is now a private nonprofit organization dedicated to the development and domestication of the muskox. LARS researchers in Fairbanks are no longer directly affiliated with the Palmer Muskox Farm, but do help in an advisory capacity.

The return of muskoxen to Alaska is an important success story in wildlife conservation. The original Alaska muskoxen disappeared by the 1860s as they had much earlier in Europe and Asia. Concern over the impending extinction of the species worldwide led to a move to restore a protected population to Alaska.

In 1930, 34 muskoxen were captured in East Greenland and brought to Fairbanks. In 1935 and 1936, all survivors and their calves were transported from Fairbanks to Nunivak Island Alaska and then released. Dedicated scientists and staff for many years have been reintroducing muskoxen to the Alaskan wilderness, Europe, and zoos around the world. The muskoxen have gone from the brink of extinction in the 1860s to a current population of 3,000 in Alaska and 80,000 worldwide.

In February 1979, Dr. Robert G. White captured 16 muskoxen on Nunivak Island National Wildlife Refuge and flew them to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They were placed in quarantine at a temporary facility located behind West Ridge for up to one year to determine the virus, that had infected some of the animals previously penned at the station, was no longer viable. reindeer, moose, and caribou colonies were established within three years, although the moose were subsequently moved to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Moose Research Center at Soldotna, Alaska.

The LARS research station comprises 134 acres (approximately 50 percent pasture and 50 percent boreal forest), with a centralized handling facility , laboratory , metabolic research building, feed and bedding storage units, including offices and living quarters. The licensed radio-tracer facility is regularly inspected for adherence to strict guidelines of animal research by federal and state authorities.

Current animal colonies at LARS consist of muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus), caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti), and domestic reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus). Most of the animals, except muskox, are tame and therefore extremely useful in nutritional, metabolic, physiological, and behavioral studies. Animal recruitment is sufficient to allow for additional studies in reproduction populations. In 2003, LARS' colony size was approximately 42 muskoxen, 25 caribou, and 37 reindeer.

Research emphasis includes studies on comparative nutritional and reproductive physiology, endocrine and physiological controls, behavior, energetics, genetics, and disease. These projects involve UAF faculty, research assistants, visiting scientists, interns, graduate, and undergraduate students. Living accommodations (Earthwatch Cabin 1987) are available to visiting scientists, scholars, interns, and graduate students.

The station also serves in an educational and outreach capacity by providing the opportunity to introduce students to wildlife and wildlife research, from primary grades to adult continuing education. High school and undergraduate students have the opportunity to conduct research projects under the guidance of University faculty and graduate students. Many UAF biology and wildlife instructors incorporate a visit to LARS as part of their courses.