As the thermostat drops and the first snowfall laces with the last of the fall colors, the wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem react to the change of seasons, too. This is a boon for animal lovers. Active ungulates (that would be deer, moose, elk, and pronghorn) and great carnivores like the grizzly bear criss-cross the valley fattening up for the lean season ahead and migrating to their winter ranges.

We spoke with Mary Lendman Cernicek, Public Affairs Officer for the Bridger-Teton National Forest, to learn more about autumn’s role in the dynamic lives of our valley’s wildlife.

First, some stats for you:

The Bridger-Teton National Forest manages 3.4 million acres of protected wilderness, which makes it the largest land manager for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The GYE is great, indeed: Spanning 3 states and around 18 million acres, it represents one of the largest intact temperate-zone ecosystems remaining on earth. A patchwork quilt of state and federally protected forests and parks help to ensure the relatively unimpeded movement of the diverse wildlife within. In Jackson Hole, we are lucky to enjoy direct access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and the National Elk Refuge.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest manages 3.4 million acres of protected wilderness, which makes it the largest land manager for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The GYE is great, indeed: Spanning 3 states and around 18 million acres, it represents one of the largest intact temperate-zone ecosystems remaining on earth. A patchwork quilt of state and federally protected forests and parks help to ensure the relatively unimpeded movement of the diverse wildlife within. In Jackson Hole, we are lucky to enjoy direct access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and the National Elk Refuge.

Wildlife’s Winter Checklist

While we look forward to carving the steeps at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the valley’s wildlife populations are preparing themselves for a months-long test of survival.

  • Migration:  Animals, including avian species, are heading to warmer climes that are less snowy and more abundant in food. The Canadian geese have taken wing to the south and now you can witness many species on the hoof in search of winter pastures.
  • Physiological Changes: Just as you may contemplate adding a warm Stio jacket to your winter wardrobe when November hits, some species begin growing thicker fur during this time of year in order to keep warm. The snowshoe hare and ermine have adapted to grow new white fur—this helps them to camouflage against the snow and elude predators.
  • Calorie Storage: All valley species are at work on this issue. While mule deer traverse the slopes, nibbling on moss, twigs, leaves, and bark, smaller critters are conserving resources. Squirrels, mice, and beavers are industriously at work along the edges of waterways and other habitats, stockpiling food to store away for later.
  • Gimme Shelter: For many smaller animals, it’s time to batten down the hatches. Smaller wildlife seek shelter in holes in trees or logs, under rocks, or underground. Jackson Hole also plays host to “subnivean” cultures during the winter months—a.k.a mice and voles who build elaborate tunnels beneath the snow. This allows them to huddle close to one another and keep as cozy as possible when sub-zero temperatures settle over the valley.
Buck Pronghorn in Gros Ventre Wilderness

North America’s fastest land mammal is extraordinary in more ways than one. Each autumn, they embark on a 6,000 year old migration route, leaving behind their summer range in Grand Teton National Park to head south to the Green River Valley. “In 2008, The Bridger-Teton National Forest established the nation’s first federally designated wildlife corridor,” Cernicek explains. Known as the Path of the Pronghorn, this protected route is one of the longest—and last—of its kind in North America, as well as the longest left in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In the spring, pronghorn herds complete the journey in reverse.

Buck Deer on Shadow Mountain

Deer are frequently spotted throughout this time and in a large range of areas as they trek west, east, and south.

Bull Elk Resting in National Elk Refuge

During the fall months, elk herds abandon the high country for the valley floor. In Jackson Hole, historic elk wintering grounds abut residential and commercial areas. In order to lessen stress for winter animals, “designated critical winter wildlife areas” like the National Elk Refuge play a crucial role. As elk migrate to the Refuge, the South Park Feeding Grounds, and into the Hoback Canyon, valley residents may encounter curious sights: a full herd bedding down in a cow pasture one night; an empty pasture by morning.

Bull Moose at Dornan's

Fall is one of the best times of year to spot the elusive moose moving near town, often with calves in tow. During this time, moose ditch timbered and willowed areas for the sagebrush flats while they munch on fall shrubs. This includes the tasty shrubs growing in locals’ yards.

Both black and grizzly bears are very active in the fall. As they load up on food prior to the big sleep (i.e. retreating to their dens to hibernate), bears roam over large distances to uncover nutritious food sources.  In Yellowstone, the denning period for most bears lasts around 5 months, which means a bear is anxious to store as many calories as possible. Their restless search can stretch into December. Word to the wise: Be extra bear aware during this time of year.

Where to Go

Grab your spotting scope and camera and get out there!

“Dawn and dusk are often the most active times for the majority of wildlife species in the Bridger-Teton National Forest,” Cernicek says. “Nocturnal or night-time wildlife tends to be more active during full moon periods. Right now, the moose and elk are very active and very visible in the sagebrush flats, especially as they are looking for their mates. Wildlife is often active in poor weather, although most will seek cover when the weather is really bad or the storms and winds are particularly intense.  You will find that many animals become lively again just after the inclement weather breaks.” Hence, there really is a silver lining to even the chilliest early winter storm.

If you’d like an even more in-depth wildlife experience than simply going on your own, join a wildlife tour. On these intimate expeditions, a seasoned wildlife guide does the driving—and talking—as you explore Jackson Hole’s wilderness. Each trip is unique, and you will be able to witness a huge variety of wildlife in their native habitats, all while taking advantage of high-caliber viewing equipment and expertise.

Our concierge staff at the Clear Creek Group is happy to arrange one of these experiences for you—simply give us a call.

Fall Aspens at Antelope Flats
Be Safe

With all the imperatives wildlife must obey at this time of year—forage, mate, hibernate, shelter—tensions between animals and humans can run especially high. Be safe by following established bear safety guidelines, never feeding wildlife, and giving any critters you see a wide berth. While out hiking on valley trails, be sure to keep your dogs under control and seek out a different path if a large moose blocks your way. Stress from human infringement on their habitats can cause wild animals to expend crucial energy that they need to survive the upcoming winter, so tread lightly and do not speed when driving from place to place.

Jackson Hole residents and visitors are among some of the most fortunate in the world—we truly do not have an “off season” when it comes to witnessing the majestic splendor of Nature’s creation. Take advantage of that unique opportunity this fall.