North American Ungulate Tour

This is sort of an RFI, but maybe broader in scope than I have seen on this forum before. I would like to try to see all twelve native North American ungulate species (north of Mexico) during 2022. I was thinking that it might be a fun “armchair game” to ask experts here to build hypothetical itineraries that would put you in the best spots at the best times to have a good chance at quality observations. The catch is you only have two weeks of travel: one two-week itinerary or two one-week itineraries. Bonus points for keeping it “budget friendly.” Define that as you see fit.

For the record, the twelve species are:

  1. Collared Peccary
  2. White-tailed Deer
  3. Mule Deer
  4. Caribou
  5. Elk (Wapiti)
  6. Moose
  7. Pronghorn
  8. Bighorn Sheep
  9. Thinhorn Sheep (Stone and Dall’s)
  10. Mountain Goat
  11. Muskox
  12. Bison

I am not familiar with any widely accepted splits for these species, but bonus points for including any potential splits or significantly different subspecies.

Please forgive me if discussions like this are not appropriate for this forum and feel free to delete my post.



  • John Fox

    A pretty intriguing idea, Joshua. In a year it would be fairly easy, in two weeks it is impossible just by ranges. Even with a corporate jet at your disposal Musk Ox far north and Peccary far south would do you in.

  • Venkat Sankar

    A fun thought exercise. I think it ought to be quite achievable in 2 weeks – the catch is you’d be rushing through some great areas for other mammals that deserve more time…

    I’d do 2 1-week itineraries. For “part 1,” go to Alaska for a week – Denali, Dalton Highway, and Kenai Fjords. Between those 3 sites, you will see Caribou, Moose, Dall Sheep, Mountain Goat, and Muskox. June or Aug are probably best.

    For part 2 (second week), I’d go to Arizona. In the SE part of the state (e.g. Cave Creek), you can see Collared Peccary & White-tailed Deer. Mule Deer, Elk, Pronghorn, and Bighorn Sheep are pretty widespread; Grand Canyon S Rim is one good area to try for example. You can complete the set with Bison on the N rim, as long as you are OK with counting introduced species.

    If everything must be in native range, it’s a bit trickier… You would still do the week in AK. For the second week, you could try: 3 nights in Yellowstone (Mule Deer, Elk, Moose, Pronghorn, Bighorn Sheep, Bison) – flight Salt Lake City to Phoenix – 3 nights around Tucson (Collared Peccary & White-tailed Deer; more chances at Mule Deer and Bighorn Sheep).

    As a tangent, another amazing area for ungulates I didn’t mention is Muncho Lake in far NW BC (Canada). Seems great for 3 special subspecies you wouldn’t see at the above sites – Woodland Caribou, Stone Sheep, and Wood Bison. It is tough to get to on a short trip, however.

  • Vladimir Dinets

    Black-tailed deer is a species separate from mule deer.
    You have to decide if you count introduced and reintroduced species. If you don’t count reintroductions, muskox becomes very tricky to fit in.

  • Joshua

    Of course you are correct. I can’t believe I forgot to include Black-tailed Deer; I must have had 12 stuck in my head from some standard checklist like Baker or IUCN. Thanks for linking that paper. I would not consider them separate based on this paper which uses a single mtDNA gene. As the authors themselves say, “we understand the need to avoid overinterpretations of the gene tree that resulted from our analyses. As interpreted here, our results represent a set of explicit hypotheses that will serve to guide further research.” But just as a lay observer, I find it hard to believe that mulies and blacktails were ever lumped to begin with. (I also enjoyed the interesting findings on “Mazama” in that paper.”

    Concerning introductions and reintroductions, for the purposes of this exercise either are acceptable; but native is best where possible, and reintroductions are better than introductions. I would like to avoid introductions if possible. So the Dalton Highway/Artic NWR population that you mention in your Field Guide to Finding Mammals of North America would work for this exercise. For my life list, I hope to see them all in native ranges.

    On that subject, where is the best place(s) to get muskox in its native range?

  • Joshua

    Thanks for embracing the thought experiment! Your ideas are very helpful. The Kenai-Denali-Dalton is probably a winner, even though a few more days would be ideal; and I like the two options for picking up the rest. Also, Muncho Lake sounds interesting; I was just reading Jamie Lamb’s Northern BC trip report after I posted my initial query.

    Today, I checked out Tom J. Ulrich’s Mammals of the Northern Rockies (Mountain Press, 1990) from my local library. I know it is fairly dated, but it looks like you could count on ticking eight species in the area. After reading this and considering your proposed Alaska itinerary through the information in Vladimir Dinets’s Field Guide to Finding Mammals in North America, I think my solution will be to drop Collared Peccary from my target list (I already have it on my life list) and plan trips to Alaska and the northern Rockies of the US. I might end up expanding each trip to ten or fourteen days, completing one next year and one in 2023.

    Can you find Black-tailed Deer on Kenai Peninsula? Vladimir’s book mentions them in the panhandle at Glacier Bay NP, but I bet that would add at least two days to the itinerary.

    Again, thanks for embracing the thought experiment. I hope others add their ideas, even if they disregard my explicit limits but have ideas on how to tick the most species in the shortest time. Another thought experiment might be to ask where and when would you go if you could take thirteen separate trips and devote each trip to finding the best experience with each species.

  • John Fox

    There is a famous spot for Dall Sheep 20 mi south of Anchorage if you still need it on the way to Kinai. And Beluga whales are sometimes easy in Turnagain Arm, always worth a look.

  • Vladimir Dinets

    I don’t usually recognize splits based entirely on mtDNA, but in this case there is other evidence, I just linked the most recent paper.
    I’ve never seen muskox in non-reintroduced range. There is a bunch of places in Nunavut and Greenland, but all are very expensive to get to.
    B-t deer are generally difficult in Alaska (they are common on some islands but these are introduced populations). On Kenai they are more common on the E side.
    John: the Dall sheep site near Anchorage doesn’t usually have them in summer and early fall.

  • Matt Miller

    The real difficulty comes down to the black-tailed deer and the musk ox in the 2-week time span. The rest are quite doable split between the Yellowstone area and Denali area.

    I have seen 8 species on your list in Yellowstone/Grand Teton, although whitetail only once (at the National Elk Refuge). You really can’t count on whitetail there, but of course this species is so widespread and common you should be able to manage somewhere.

    In, say, 4 or 5 days, I think 7 of your species in Yellowstone is quite doable. You would need to break that down as a game plan as some of the species are quite localized. For Kenai, Dall sheep and caribou are not difficult, as well as moose if you missed them in Grand Teton.

    Black-tailed deer are not necessarily difficult on the Pacific Coast, just out of your way. In Alaska, I saw a lot on Prince of Wales Island, driving the roads. But that is a long detour on a short trip.

  • Matt Heinicke

    Everyone else’s options have been really good. I’ll add a few options to what’s been stated above.

    -For Muskox in Alaska, assuming the starting point is Anchorage it is probably cheaper and faster to fly to Nome than to drive the Dalton Highway. It’s something like 15 hours driving from Anchorage to get past the Brooks Range into Muskox range, and car rentals that allow Dalton Highway driving are typically US$200 or more per day. In comparison an Anchorage-Nome round trip flight takes 90 minutes each way, costs $300, and a one day car rental in Nome is around $100. Muskox are also much more common on the Seward Peninsula then they are along the North Slope. Wildlife along the Dalton Highway is also pretty much the same as what can be seen more easily at Denali (except for Alaska Marmot), while on the Seward Peninsula there is a slight chance for things like Spotted Seal, Alaska Hare, or Arctic Fox, plus various seabirds and Eurasian landbirds.

    – Collared Peccary and White-tailed Deer are apparently reliable in Arizona as far north as Tonto Natural Bridge SP, which is only 5 hours drive from free-ranging bison at the Grand Canyon North Rim. Using these sites makes it barely viable to get all seven Arizona ungulates in perhaps 3 days. With a full week it is on the edge of possible to add a long drive west to the coast of California (San Simeon or points north) for Black-tailed Deer, with possible small mammal stops along the way in places like Seligman, Sequoia NP, or the Carrizo Plain. Or north to the higher ranges of Utah or Colorado for Moose and Mountain Goat.

    -For the eight US Rocky Mountain species:

    If doing a Yellowstone/Teton itinerary, a shortish drive to one of the surrounding valley towns (Jackson, Red Lodge, Bozeman) greatly increases the odds for White-tailed Deer.

    All eight species can be found around Denver by combining Mt. Evans (Mountain Goat), Rocky Mountain NP (Sheep, Wapiti, Moose), Rocky Mountain Arsenal (Bison), and Plains Conservation Center (Pronghorn). The two deer could be picked up anywhere. Bison viewing here is a bit awkward with fences and downtown Denver in the background.

    All eight can also be gotten in Montana by combining Glacier NP with the National Bison Range. The Bison Range is scenic, but the habitat feels a bit “wrong” for Bison because it is perched up on the slopes of a mountain. On the flipside, it would be possible to drive less than 8 hours west to add Black-tailed Deer, and an even shorter drive puts you in Yellowstone. I’ve seen all eight Rocky Mountain ungulates (along with bears, wolves, etc.) within the span of a week doing a combined Glacier/Yellowstone itinerary.

    It’s also possible to get 7 of 8 species in the vicinity of Salt Lake City by combining Antelope Island with the Wasatch Range. It requires a 4-5 hour drive north to add White-tailed Deer. The Black Hills/Badlands of South Dakota also have 7 of 8, with Moose 4-5 hours to the west in the Bighorn Mountains. Earlier this year I saw all seven South Dakota ungulates in two days with minimal effort – all species viewed at least once from a car at distances of 0 (Bison) to 100 (Pronghorn) feet.

    For all of the above-mentioned Rocky Mountain sites the main caveats are that only the Yellowstone/Teton area has free-ranging Bison, and only the Glacier NP area has native Mountain Goats.

  • Joshua

    Thanks for the additions, John, Matt, and Matt.

    John, the Dall’s sheep site might still be an option in summer, assuming it is the same one around Turnagain Arm. Looking at observations on iNaturalist, most of the observations in that area are between June and August, but I’m not sure how reliable it may be at that time.

    Matt Miller, I was looking at the Sitka subspecies of Black-tailed Deer because I would already be in Alaska. Looking at iNaturalist observations for that subspecies, there seem to be three hotspots on Kodiak Island; in the Alaska panhandle, particular around the town of Sitka; and on Haida Gwaii. So I looked for flights from Anchorage to Sitka. That would add a couple days and about $400, but I noticed that none of the flights were direct from Anchorage with one connecting through Juneau but the rest connected through Seattle. That made me think I might drop into Seattle for a round trip to Sitka before going to Anchorage. Then I thought if I had to hit Seattle and add a day for Black-tailed Deer, that I can just add the day or two in Seattle and pick up the Columbian subspecies (and maybe some other Pacific NW species of interest). I priced a flight home to Seattle on a Friday, Seattle to Anchorage on Sunday, and Anchorage home on the following Sunday, and it was only $20 more than a round trip from home to Anchorage: $404. If I was more prepared, I would have hit “Book” right then. 🙂

    Matt Heinicke, I believe the muskox around Nome are introduced. Nome definitely makes more sense if that does not matter to the mammal watcher. Great alternative. If the mammal watcher is fine with reintroduced but not introduced, I believe the North Slope is the only option. And as Vladimir pointed out, if native populations are required, then picking them up gets very expensive and probably impossible in two weeks.

    I appreciate all the Lower 48 alternatives. As you pointed out, some of those are picking up introduced populations, but those are great alternatives if that doesn’t matter.

    By the way, I would not be upset if I missed White-tailed Deer because I have those at home, but I appreciate everyone commenting on them for other readers of this post who may not.

  • Vladimir Dinets

    Muskox on Dalton Hwy are reintroduced in the same sense as those around Nome: they were killed off in Alaska in prehistoric times. B-t deer on Kodiak were introduced a few decades ago, it’s not part of their native range.
    There are two roads in the US (AFAIK) that rental companies specifically prohibit people from driving: Dalton Hwy and Saddle Rd. between Kona and Hilo. Both prohibitions are long outdated, are routinely ignored by thousands of people a year, and I’ve never heard of anyone getting into any trouble for doing this.

  • John Fox

    Joshua, yeah I saw the Dall Sheep from the road in July, I’m pretty sure they are resident. That link I posted says if they aren’t on the side of the cliff visible from the road then a short hike might be needed.

    The real problem driving unpaved roads in Alaska is rock flats, I saw more than one guy carrying two full size spare tires. I paid the high rate in Fairbanks for a legal car and got a flat coming back out off the Dalton highway, and the spare was also flat. I limped home on the rim cursing the rental car company the whole way.

    The best solution is to drive slow but, man, as the hours tick by it’s hard to do.

    FWIW, the ABA rule for counting introduced birds is the population has to persist for three generations, they have find their own food, and no new members are introduced into the population. It seems like a reasonable approach.

    So the Amazonian Manatees at the botanical garden in Georgetown, Guyana have been there for 130 years and I figured they are countable. Everyone has to decide for themselves, I suppose.


    • Vladimir Dinets

      Looks like the ABA has changed the listing rules for reintroduced populations. Currently “an individual of a reintroduced indigenous species may be counted if it is part of a population that has successfully hatched young in the wild or when it is not possible to reasonably separate the reintroduced individual from a wild-born individual.”
      I suspect they did it because under their old rules California condors would not become countable until the end of Anthropocene.

  • Joshua

    I made my comment about muskox around Nome being introduced, not reintroduced, based on the range map at IUCN , but if you read the detailed geographic range information, those details do not seem to match the map.

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