Summer may get most of the glory, but, really, the best season to view wildlife in the Jackson Hole area is winter. Local naturalist Kurt Johnson shares why.
Few realize that winter is prime wildlife viewing time in Jackson Hole. It’s when many species descend into the valley for easier winter living at lower elevations, including bighorn sheep, elk, moose, and more. Here, we interview Kurt Johnson of Wild Things Wyoming and the in-house naturalist for Hotel Terra and Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa to hear about the best places to see particular winter wildlife and why.
Why is winter such a special time to see wildlife in Jackson Hole?
“The animals tend to congregate, so they’re easier to find. There are also animals that you see in the winter that you just don’t see in the summer, like bighorn sheep. We see them every day, all winter long. Moose are easier to find too. Coyotes, wolves. Then 6,000 to 8,000 elk migrate down into the National Elk Refuge every fall. It’s kind of a trickle. It usually begins in late October, and some of them are still making their way down in December and January. So, you see a greater variety of animals and you see them more often.”
So say I’m here for a winter tour and I really want to see a wolf, can you do that for me?
“While we can’t guarantee that you’ll see this or that animal, we do try our best to tailor it to your wildlife interests. Once we meet people and get to know them a little bit while we’re driving toward the park, we always ask what they hope to see, what they’re interested in, and that’ll help drive where we go and what we talk about. So if you’re interest is in wolves, I can’t guarantee a sighting, but we’ll talk about wolves, the issues wolves face, their ecosystem. Compared to other Jackson Hole wildlife safaris, we’re sort of exclusive as we’re doing pickups only at the lodge or hotel – that’s it. Other companies have a bunch of different pickups, it takes longer, and it’s not as tailored.”
What do people ask to see the most?
“In the winter, everyone likes moose. They’re a little harder to find than the elk, which are basically guaranteed, but people hire us to find things and learn things, and that’s what we try to do. It’s really just taking people to the right place at the right time, and knowing the habits of the animals themselves. Once we’re there, we’ll tell stories about the geological and wildlife features, what makes the animals special and unique, how they interact with other animals and plants. We really try to dig into the ecology, and people tend to like going back and forth. They’re really self-selecting – we get people who have a strong interest in animals and the national parks, so they’re usually smart and interested.”
What other kinds of wildlife can people expect to see in the winter?
“We get good looks at bison, red fox, and birds of prey like bald eagles. We don’t necessarily talk about other birds that much unless people are into it, but most people like the birds of prey, like the eagles and owls. It’s pretty extraordinary what we can see in one day.”
What are the best places to see the different kinds of wildlife?
“During the winter, about half our safari is in the National Elk Refuge, which is the lowest point of the valley – and the animals know that. It’s easier for them to forage for the grasses and stuff, so it’s really active during the winter. As a contrast, during the summer we don’t spend much time there because the animals have moved north and spread out in Grand Teton National Park. We do spend some time there, though – that’s where we see elk, bighorn sheep, bison, mule deer, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, coyotes, and occasionally wolves and moose.”
What sets Jackson Hole apart from other places when it comes to wildlife?
“I’ve been a guide in a lot of different places around the world, and I always come back to Jackson Hole as the most extraordinary place for wildlife. It’s been rated as the top national park in the country for wildlife, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that. We’re in the middle of an intact ecosystem with 18 million acres of wild and public land. Also, when you contrast it with other parks, like Denali National Park, Glacier Bay up in Alaska, they’re obviously incredible parks, but the difference with Grand Teton National Park is that you can access it 12 months of the year, which is why we’re able to offer tours year-round.”