Watching Wildlife In and Around Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park rivals neighbor Yellowstone when it comes to wildlife, such as these bison grazing in front of Mount Moran. NPS photo.

If you've ever been to Yellowstone National Park, you know that it is well-deserving of its reputation as an open-air zoo thanks to all the bison, elk, bears, wolves, coyotes, moose, and bird life to be seen. But don't sell neighboring Grand Teton National Park short when it comes to viewing wildlife.

With the summer travel season not too far off, here are some things to keep in mind if you're contemplating a trip to Grand Teton with hopes of spying wildlife:

* Once a crossroads of the fur trade, Jackson Hole these days is a crossroads of wildlife impressionism. There’s the real thing clattering around the mountains, flats and valleys of Grand Teton National Park, and then there are the paintings and sculptures displayed in Jackson’s numerous art galleries and the National Museum of Wildlife Art that's located just north of town on the west side of the highway. Within this museum you'll find a dozen galleries of art ranging from Audubons and Bierstadts to Catlins and Russells, as well as more contemporary paintings and sculptures.

* The annual Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival, which runs September 10-20 this year, overflows with wildlife, but not exactly the flesh and blood type. For instance, grizzly bears typically come in a variety of earthy tones, from rich, ruddy cinnamons to dark chocolates. But one I saw at this art festival boasted a kaleidoscopic coat of electric reds, oranges, blues, pinks, yellows and lime greens. Not a living and breathing griz at all, but rather a two-dimensional interpretation by one of the festival's artists.

* While admiring canvasses is a great way to spend an afternoon, to glimpse living and breathing critters cruise the Moose-Wilson Road between Teton Village and the national park headquarters at Moose. Lush with vegetation bursting with succulent berries in early fall, the road corridor is popular with black bears anxious to add a few pounds before winter sets in. When I visited this hot spot I found bruins precariously perched on limbs, stretching for berries in nearby bushes, and strolling down the road, bears so close a telephoto lens is unnecessary.

* For help in finding wildlife, consider joining one of the Teton Science School's Wildlife Expeditions. This non-profit offers spring, summer and fall expeditions into Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Their rigs are big and comfortable and feature roof hatches that allow you to photograph animals from a safe distance. The day-long trip I took with this group featured a bull elk pushing his harem of cows across the sagebrush flats beneath the steely Grand Teton, a bald eagle roosting atop a snag overlooking the Snake River, bison and trumpeter swans, moose and white pelicans, sandhill cranes and pronghorn antelope.

The Teton Science School also has special bear- and wolf-watching expeditions on the schedule. These affairs, which head to the Lamar and Hayden valleys of Yellowstone National Park, come in two- ($650/person) and three ($950/person) -day packages that include accommodations, meals, snacks, bevvies, transportation and biologist guides. Upcoming dates for these packages are:

* April 26-28
* May 1-3
* May 6-8
* May 10-11
* May 13-15
* May 17-19
* May 22-24
* May 26-27
* May 29-31
* June 2-4

Of course, you don't need to pay anyone to show you wildlife in the park. You can head to the Teton-Moose Road, as mentioned above, or stand on the back patio of the Jackson Lake Lodge and look into the willow flats for moose, take the pullout above Oxbow Bend of the Snake River and use your binoculars to count the white pelicans, osprey, mergansers, herons, and perhaps an eagle or two, or look for bison and pronghorn antelope in the sagebrush flats on either side of U.S. 89-191 north of Jackson.

To increase your odds, get out shortly after dawn, or shortly before dusk, when the animals are more likely to be out and about. Just remember, keep your distance. Bison might look docile, but they can pack a punch. Ditto with elk, moose, and, of course, bears.

Comments

Nice write-up Kurt. On my last photo trip to the Grand Tetons (last fall), I discovered a wonderful natural history guide to the park there at the visitor center in Jackson: "A Naturalist's Guide to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks" by Dr. Frank C. Craighead Jr. It's an outstanding guide for following the annual cyclical changes in flora and fauna at Grand Tetons and Yellowstone.

You ard other Traveler readers may remember the Craighead brothers, Frank and John, and all the wonderful work they have done over the years at Yellowstone and other areas. My father had fond memories of outdoor courses he took from them while he studied at Univ. of Montana.

Rob Mutch
---
Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
www.craterlakeinstitute.com
Robert Mutch Photography,
www.robmutch.com

Wildlife watching in Grand Teton in recent years has actually been better than in Yellowstone. I'm sure this cycles back and forth over the years, but right now I would say that the Tetons are the preeminent wildlife destination in the lower forty eight. Also, viewing in the Tetons is far more relaxed. While on the books GT actually has stricter regs than Yellowstone regarding proximity to large mammals, the reality is that the bear encounter you descibe on the Moose-Wilson road could never happen in Yellowstone. The rangers would freak. They would either haze the bears away from the road or, more likely, close the whole road and all the turnouts to "No stopping, standing or walking". I don't know if it is because of a smaller enforcement budget, a different philosophy or simply the checkerboard nature of GTNP (so many private in holdings, state and forest land etc. In some areas it is almost impossible to tell if you are even in the park or not.)
While you still CAN (and do!) see just about anything in Yellowstone, it is also very possible to drive around all day and see nothing more than a few elk and a couple of bison here and there. Such isn't the case in the Tetons where, if you get up early, you will literally be tripping over the wildlife. One problem, I think, is that Yellowstone is getting drier and drier. There are dozens of places that my wife and I remember watching ducks, geese, egrets and muskrats all summer long that are now bone dry by mid May. Yellowstone is either dense evergreen forest or desert-like sage brush (that used to have lots of refreshing ponds, but not any more). Compare that to the (still) lush aspen and willows of the Snake River bottom in GTNP. Not that the Tetons aren't drying up as well; they are, slowly. Also ecosystem habitat is being lost to development at an alarming rate, leading directly to a huge reduction in moose numbers. I guess the bottom line is: see 'em while you can.

We have been in Yellowstone 3 times and the Tetons three times. Our second trip included camping at Coulter for a week. and we had time to explore the dirt road that parallels the river, what an experience, really great. Also on to Jackson Hole for lunch, quite a ice quiet area, well worth the time and effort for either or both parks. Thanks to the Natioinal Park system for keeping these parks glorious.

I have been to both parks 11 times and will do them both in the winter this year. I usually found Yellowstone with more wildlife except on my last trip this was the first not to see one bear in Yellowstone. So who can say.