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American Safaris: Where to See the Biggest Mammals in the U.S.

Go wild for the United States’ largest mammals and take an American Safari

A pair of bison hang out in the snow at Yellowstone National Park, one of the United States' best spots to see the huge mammals. (William Campbell/Corbis )
smithsonian.com

When it comes to safaris, most people travel to Africa to see the continent’s “big five”: lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards and rhinos. But what many travelers may not realize is that the United States offers equally impressive opportunities to scope out large mammals in the wild, including 4,000 pound elephant seals and the largest bears in the world. You just need to know where to go. 

“A lot of people don’t realize that there are pockets of places across the United States with tremendous wildlife,” Jason Williams, owner of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, tells Smithsonian.com.

Williams, a professional wildlife photographer who has been leading wildlife tours in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming for more than a decade, says there’s definitely danger in seeking out large animals in the wild. But there’s delight, too—as long as domestic safari-goers remember to respect the animals and their surroundings.

“Pay attention to an animal’s body language and its demeanor,” he says. “Remember, you’re on its turf now. And for your own safety, don’t get too close.”

Here’s a look at some of the country’s largest mammals and where to see them in the wild.

Gray Wolf

The gray wolf or timber wolf's range includes Alaska and parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming. Adults can devour 20 pounds of meat in one sitting. (F. Lukasseck/Masterfile/Corbis )

In the heart of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park sits Lamar Valley, home of the Lamar Canyon wolf pack. Though the pack is deep within the park, the journey is well worth the effort. It’s one of the best places in the lower 48 to see gray wolves in the wild, says Williams. He explains that since the wolves’ habitat is in a protected area, the animals are slightly less fearful than ones living in open hunting zones. That also translates to a higher probability of spotting one of these elusive critters—about 95 in all.

Alaska is another state where gray wolves roam wild. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that between 7,000 and 11,000 wolves live there. Denali National Park & Preserve, located about five hours north of Anchorage, has one of the highest concentrations of wolves in the state, though that population has decreased to its lowest point in history. Researchers worry that hunting, which was introduced in 2010 to the area surrounding the park, could potentially lead to a decrease in the population. According to one recent survey, approximately 50 wolves have been spotted in the park.

Grizzly Bear

At one time there were more than 50,000 grizzly bears in North America. Today that number has fallen to an estimated 1,800 in the lower 48 states and 31,000 in Alaska. (André Gilden/Nature in Stock/Corbis )

Yellowstone is also prime grizzly bear country. More than 800 of these lumbering giants call the park and its surrounding area home. The best time to see them is during the warmer months when they’re not hibernating—typically from June through September. To help reduce human impacts on the bears, the park has created a list of bear management areas outlining which parts of the park are open to visitors. 

Want to see some of the largest grizzlies on record? Head to Katmai National Park & Preserve, a remote wilderness area spanning more than four-million acres in southern Alaska. The park is home to some of the largest grizzlies on record, with males weighing up to 1,000 pounds. The best spot to see them is at one of the three overlooks at Brooks River, where bears congregate each summer to hunt for salmon. Katmai publishes a chart of when and where in the park to see them, and also offers park-ranger-led hikes.

North American Bison

Weighing up to a ton, bison once roamed across much of the United States. Today this lumbering giant can be found predominately in the open plains of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (James Hager/Robert Harding/Corbis)

North American Bison (also known as buffalo) are the largest mammals in North America, with mature bulls weighing up to 2,000 pounds. Earlier this year, President Obama signed an act naming them the official mammal of the United States. One of the best places to see these massive creatures is in the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota, which has a controlled population of around 750. Often, bison can be spotted wandering alongside the national park’s roads.

About 270 miles south sits Custer State Park, another prime location for bison viewing, with a population of approximately 1,300. The ideal time to visit is during the Annual Buffalo Roundup (this year’s event will be on September 30), when, as part of population control efforts, cowboys corral the thundering animals which can reach speeds of up to 35 mph. 

Polar Bears

Polar bears can also be spotted in Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic Circle. They're the largest carnivorous land mammals on the planet. (Cordier Sylvain/Hemis/Corbis )

Although the vast majority of polar bears live deep within the Arctic Circle, many can be found in the circle’s southern reaches, namely Alaska. Approximately 900 polar bears reside along the shores of the Beaufort Sea within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, however the population is constantly threatened due to unfavorable ice conditions and lack of prey, according to research published in the journal Ecological Applications, and its population has been in limbo for more than a decade.

However, you can still see the the majestic white bears, with the prime window being between August and October, when the area is predominately ice-free and the bears aren’t denning. Look hard enough, and you might even see one wandering through the village. Several outfitters in the nearby coastal village of Kaktovik offer polar bear tours. But make sure to keep safety in mind, as these bears may appear cute and cuddly, but they are predators.

Moose

Moose are the largest relatives to deer and can be found in the northern reaches of the United States and in Alaska. (Donald M. Jones/Minden Pictures/Corbis )

Moose have a range stretching from coast to coast, but one of the densest areas to spot one is in northern Michigan. Located on an desolate island just east of the state’s northern tip in Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park is known for a moose population that numbers between 700 and 1,200. Throughout the summer, the park holds its annual Moosewatch Expedition, which is open to the public and includes multiple weeklong camping expeditions to help study and analyze the island’s hearty population.

Another state with a dense herd is Maine, which has a population of around 75,000 of the antler-bearing mammals. Some areas of the state are so desolate that locals joke that moose outnumber humans, but one place in particular, Baxter State Park, in the town of Millinocket, is rife with moose. During the summer the park offers “Moose Passes” on a first-come, first-served basis to help control human contact.

Humpback Whale

Humpback whales can consume up to 3,000 pounds of food a day, which includes plankton and small fish. (Paul Wolf/iStock)

A puff of ocean spray hurled into the sky is often the first signal that humpback whales are present below the ocean’s surface, and one of the best places to see these magnificent creatures in the wild is off the coast of Hawaii. During the winter months, these aquatic giants, which can reach 15 feet in length, have completed their migration from the Arctic Circle down to their breeding grounds around Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary estimates that 21,000 humpbacks winter there each year.

But that’s not to say that humpbacks can’t be spotted elsewhere in the United States. Many congregate in the Gulf of Maine in the northeast, and the Center for Coastal Studies catalogs sightings of tagged whales, even giving them names like Daffodil and Putter. Although less common, there have been instances where humpbacks travel farther south. For example, this summer resulted in several eyewitness accounts of whales off the coast of New Jersey.

Cougar

Cougars need plenty of room to roam and often require a range of 30 square miles, which they share with only a few other cats. (visceralimage/iStock)

Also known as mountain lions, pumas and panthers, cougars are the largest wild cat in North America. An estimated 30,000 live in the western United States in places like California, Arizona and Texas, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation. (There’s also a small, endangered subspecies of Florida panthers living in the swamplands and pinelands of Florida with a population of about 100.) Most recently, cougars were spotted in Tennessee for the first time since the early 1900s.

Unlike other land mammals that travel in groups, these predators are solitary and will actively avoid their fellow felines unless they’re looking to mate. They’re also shy around humans, so seeing one in the wild is usually sheer happenstance.

Kodiak Bear

Kodiak bears typically hibernate up to eight months out of the year. (roclwyr/iStock)

Some 12,000 years ago, brown bears migrated from Alaska to the Kodiak Archipelago, a group of islands that trickles down from the mainland. They’ve inhabited this lush, mountainous region ever since. Today the Kodiak bear, a subspecies of brown (grizzly) bears, is thriving with a population numbering about 3,500 and growing, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Kodiaks are considered the largest bears in the world, tipping the scale at 1,500 pounds (grizzlies, by comparison, weigh a mere 600 pounds), and like their furry cousins, hibernate up to eight months out of the year. In other words, your chances of spotting one in the wild are highest in the summer. One of the best places to see them is at the Kodiak Brown Bear Center on Kodiak Island, which has a team of guides that lead groups to bear viewing spots around the island that are a safe distance from the bears.

Northern Elephant Seal

Northern Elephant Seals can weigh up to 4,000 pounds. (Dgwildlife/iStock)

With a range that stretches from Baja California north to the Gulf of Alaska, elephant seal colonies are often a familiar sight in coastal areas, where hundreds of individuals lounge and stretch their massive bodies on beaches and rocky outcroppings along the shoreline. During breeding season each spring, males, which can weigh up to 4,000 pounds, can be heard from great distances bellowing to get a potential mate’s attention. However, during the rest of the year (except for when they’re molting), elephant seals spend their time away from the coast and in the ocean.

One of the best places to see them in the wild is at the Año Nuevo State Park, a breeding beach just north of Santa Cruz where numbers hover in the low thousands. 

Florida Manatee

Florida manatee mainly reside in Florida's Crystal River. (Dtamarack/iStock)

Peering down from a kayak as manatees lazily drift along Crystal River, a body of freshwater that’s a National Wildlife Refuge in western Florida, is one of the best ways to see these herbivores in the wild. Numerous operators offer tours - some even put you in the water with these gentle giants, but tourists activities can also put these gentle giants in danger, frightening them into colder water which can prove deadly to these temperature sensitive mammals. Adhere to all wildlife viewing restrictions, give the animals space and do not feed or touch them under any circumstances.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about 600 manatees call Crystal River home during the winter. That number shrinks to about 30 in the summer, when most migrate as far west as Texas and as far south as Cuba. Some have even been spotted off the coast of Massachusetts, and can survive in both freshwater and saltwater habitats.  

Pacific Walrus

Pacific Walrus are known for their ivory tusks and can be found in Alaska. (zanskar/iStock)

The Chukchi Sea’s shallow waters make it an ideal feeding ground for Pacific walruses and other mammals who congregate in this region of northern Alaska during the winter months. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates their population to be anywhere between 55,000 and 507,000. Although walruses can swim short distances, they spend the majority of their time relaxing on sheets of ice in between foraging trips. However, a 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that the icy zones that walruses rely on for survival are quickly disappearing due to climate change.

In response to their changing habitat, walruses must scramble to find a spot on dry land in a behavior that is known as “haul outs.” Each spring, 2,000 to 10,000 male walruses haul out on the seven small, isolated islands in Bristol Bay that make up Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary. Access to the remote islands is by permit only; luckily, the walruses are also viewable by live web cam, 24/7. 

Planning on seeing some of the country's largest mammals? Here are wildlife guide Jason Williams’ viewing tips:

Do your homework. Research the locations of animals’ habitats before hitting the road. If seeing grizzly bears is at the top of your bucket list, realize that the best time to view them is in the summer when they’re not hibernating.

Hire a guide. Wildlife guides can educate you about specific animals and their habits, and know just where to go to see them.

Respect the animals. Remember that you’re on their turf. If an animal starts backing away, allow it some space to reduce its stress.

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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