Mountain hunting can be a disease for those afflicted.
If you have ever been on a true mountain hunt, then you might know a bit of what I'm talking about.
Here is the way I see it...
Goats and sheep live in the mountains, usually above treeline and often in crazy, cliffy, gnarly, high mountain country. Pursuing goats and sheep in that amazing country gives the hunter a rare glimpse into a landscape and ecosystem that as humans we just don’t venture into often. This is the mountain hunting experience.
Once a hunter has gotten a taste of those high windswept ridges, craggy peaks, and alpine basins dotted with tarns and scree chutes, it's hard to get the memory of that hunt -- that amazing country and the beautiful animals that live up there -- out of your head.
Combine that experience with the hard physical exertion that is required to reach those places, which produces endorphines in your brain - kinda like your body's very own morphine - and you have a magical, chemical combination!
Add awe-inspiring animals such as the snow-white Dall sheep and mountain goat and the two-toned Stone sheep to the epic views of the high country and the natural euphoria of bashing your way up to those mountain peaks and its a wicked, addictive combination.
If and when you get the mountain hunting bug, you will the feel unsatiable craving to experience it again and again.
The Cost Of Mountain Hunting
If you live in the lower-48 and have ever wanted to do a sheep hunt or a mountain goat hunt then you really only have a few options.
You could put in for sheep and goat tags in one or more western states and hope to draw a once-in-a-lifetime tag (depending on your residency and tag strategy this could cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year).
You could book a hunt with an outfitter in Alaska or Canada. Goat hunts are currently running $10k + and Dall sheep hunts are in the neighborhood of $20k. Add travel expenses, license and tag fees and gratuity and you are looking at a range of $12.5k - $25k, roughly.
Or you could purchase a governor's tag in the state of your choice. These tags vary widely in price based on species, state and whatever the tag happens to go for at auction that year. This does not necessarily have to be a rich man’s (or woman’s) game, but you can figure on somewhere in the neighborhood of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a chance to bypass the draw and get a tag. (The upside of this system is that the majority of that money typically goes directly towards conservation efforts for that species)
Finally, you can always put in for every goat and sheep hunt raffle and giveaway that you can find (and work on getting good with the big guy upstairs). You should probably be doing this anyways, but you know what they say about wishing in one hand and…
It’s easy to see why it can seem a bit daunting for a blue-collar hunter to pull off a sheep or a goat hunt these days. Love it or hate it, mountain hunting has become a bit of a rich man’s (or woman’s) game, based primarily on the limited tag availability and growing popularity of goat and sheep hunting creating a high demand for those guided goat and sheep hunts. (We haven’t even discussed $50k stone sheep hunts)
Then there is New Zealand. Even if you go guided, you can find a good tahr hunt for around $6-8k and you could book it for next year. No waiting to draw a tag or win a raffle and it's significantly less than a guided mountain goat hunt.
If you have some experience in the mountains and you are feeling keen to try it DIY style, then you could cut that price in half again, go anytime that you want to go without having to worry about an outfitter’s openings and you would be getting every bit of the quality of mountain hunting experience than you would from a North America mountain goat or sheep hunt.
The main difference is that tahr aren’t as white and beautiful as a mountain goat and their horns aren't as big as a sheep's, so they have a tendency to fall a bit outside the “sexy” category of mountain hunting game species.
That is absolute rubbish though so I'm going to lay it straight out for you.
The Southern Alps
I’m gonna start off here by saying that I have pretty limited mountain hunting experience compared to some of the more traveled mountain hunters. I just want to be clear that I can only speak from my own mountain hunting perspective.
I’ve hunted in the Cascade range in Washington and Oregon. I’ve hunted in the Rockies and its smaller ranges in Idaho, Colorado and Montana. I’ve hunted in the Brooks Range, Alaska Range and the Chugach range in Alaska.
Internationally, I’ve only done a little bit of hiking in the Dolomites of northern Italy, and of course I've now hunted the Southern Alps of New Zealand. I’ve never hunted any of the Canadian mountain ranges and I’ve never been to Asia.
That said, from what I’ve seen in New Zealand and based on conversations with other mountain hunters, I truly think that the Southern Alps do not give anything up to any of the mountains of North America. That is, they lack nothing that a mountain hunter could hope for from a mountain range (unless oxygen deprivation is on your short list of must haves).
The Southern Alps are a bit smaller in many ways than other mountain ranges. They aren’t super tall (Mt Cook is 12,218 feet elevation), they aren’t as wide (60 miles) or as long (310 miles) as some ranges and a big part of their lack of popularity in among US hunters is the simple fact that they are a LONG ways away from home. Out of sight and out of mind and all that, ya know?
The bottom line here, is that the Southern Alps are a mountain hunter’s paradise.
If, by some circumstance I had to limit my mountain hunting experience to one mountain range for the rest of my life and the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island was it, I truly think that I could be perfectly happy with that.
They have an incredible amount of diversity for a relatively small range. They are super steep in places, incredibly rugged, with awe-inspiring spires and picturesque alpine basins. They are thick and scrubby on the west side and broad shouldered and open on the east side. They also provide habitat to some of the worlds incredible, if underrated, mountain game species.
Himalayan Tahr are a true goat, so by nature of what they are, they give up a little of the “sexiness” of the mountain species to the members of the sheep family. (If you doubt this, then why are mtn goat hunts half price of dall sheep hunts and ibex hunts half price, or less, of argali hunts)
As a mountain hunting game animal, tahr don’t give anything up to mountain goats or sheep except for one thing...horn size (compared to sheep only....a tahr's horns are larger than North America's mountain goats). That's it.
North America’s mountain goats are well known for living in crazy, cliffy, gnarly, steep country. Although sheep can utilize that rough terrain and often do, goats seem to prefer it.
Tahr are the same. In some areas of New Zealand they live way back in the back of long drainages, up at the very tops of basins near the central peaks of the range. This is classic, big mountain, tops-of-peaks, Lord Of The Rings country. In other areas, they might be hanging at lower elevations, but almost always in steep country scattered with rocky bluffs, outcroppings and cliffs.
Hunting tahr will take you into some of the most awe-inspiring mountain country that you could imagine.
Tahr do not have the beautiful white coats that mountain goats and dall sheep have. Instead they range in color from dark chocolate to light brown, often with blonde manes. You might see this as less appealing that an all white animal. Don’t. They are cool as hell.
The first time you see a late-season bull tahr skylined on a ridge with its blonde-tipped mane rippling in the wind, you will be blown away. I was. Photos just don’t do them justice, you’ve got to go see a tahr in the wild for yourself, see them skipping on a cliff with their long haired mane bouncing with every step and you will be hooked.
Not white...but with a true mane of 8-12” blonde-tipped hair and with larger horns??? Your call, but to me they are just as impressive as a mountain goat.
Confession: we did not get a chance to go for chamois while in New Zealand and we didn’t see any while hunting tahr -- so I have zero chamois hunting experience.
However, from talking with a number of keen kiwi hunters and American hunters who have been fortunate to hunt them, chamois remind me a bit of Sitka Blacktail Deer in Alaska. I’ll explain what I mean...
Chamois really didn’t hold any appeal for me before visiting New Zealand. They are small animals, they have small, strangely shaped horns, and they kinda seemed cartoonish. Several years ago I had seen some chamois while hiking in the Dolomites in northern Italy and they just didn’t inspire the kind of awe as a mountain goat or Dall sheep does.
But...when talking to the kiwi hunters, I got the distinct impression that the chamois were just a ton of fun to hunt. They live in very similar habitat as the tahr, but they seem to utilize more elevation, ranging from the cliffy alpine tops to the creek and river bottoms. They are also fantastic to eat.
Sometimes an animal that doesn’t have big horns or antlers or any other distinguishable characteristics that we as hunters would consider a fine trophy, can still be a super fun animal to hunt.
I tell people all the time that I love hunting Sitka Blacktail in Alaska, but I rarely get even close to an enthusiastic response. If you haven’t hunted them, it can be hard to understand why a small, seemingly un-exceptional deer is a great trophy, but to those that hunt them, Sitka Blacktail are an incredible game animal that is super fun to hunt and downright addictive -- even if they have small horns (yeah, ok, they are technically antlers). I get the strong impression that chamois are the same way.
When you go, even if you don’t target chamois, they still make an awesome incidental species while pursuing tahr and they make up 50% of what is considered in New Zealand to be the "alpine double."
If you aren’t into goat or sheep hunting and the idea of hunting tahr in New Zealand might be a bit more extreme than what you are willing to bite off, then wild free-range red deer could be right up your alley and offer a quality mountain hunting experience with a bit less of the pucker factor than a tahr hunt.
Red deer live in the alpine zones in New Zealand the same way that mule deer and elk utilize the alpine in the western US during the summer and early fall.
These alpine tops are can be fairly rough country but typically are not nearly as rugged or technical as the country where you will get into good numbers of tahr. The red deer often feed in the tussock grass alpine in our early spring (their fall) before the roar.
If you love hunting elk in the alpine or subalpine in Colorado, Montana, or Wyoming (among other western states) then a red deer hunt in the alpine tops on the fringes of the Southern Alps mountain range might be right up your alley.
Even more appealing is the fact that an early fall hunt in New Zealand (what we lovingly refer to as our “September”) actually occurs in March - April. I can not believe that I've never taken advantage of being able to extend my fall hunting season just like the old surfing film, Endless Summer, before now!
Why Not New Zealand?
When you weigh it all on the balance - the cost of hunting NZ vs the quality of the landscape and the quality of the game species that the Southern Alps offers, I don’t think there is any comparison to a wild, free-range mountain hunt in New Zealand, anywhere else in the word for the traveling budget-minded hunter.
The only thing that would even come close is to become a resident of Alaska or western Canada and have access to over-the-counter sheep and goat tags every year.
If that's not a realistic option for you and you are interested in experiencing a true mountain hunt at a reasonable price, then New Zealand should definitely be at the top of your short list.