Field Notes

What Animals Will I See on the National Elk Refuge During the Winter?

by Monica RobinsonMay 10, 2023
A Large Bull Elk Bugling At The Edge of The Forest

Winter in Jackson Hole is a Season of Stunning Beauty

In contrast to the bustling, busy summer season, the crisp winter air and the backdrop of snowy white mountains transforms the landscape into a winter wonderland. The blanket of snow muffles sound to quieten down your surroundings, and the crowds thin out. The list of fun activities to do may be different than summer, but it is no less exciting! Exploring the National Elk Refuge remains at the top of our list as one of our favorite activities during the winter in Jackson Hole.

This refuge protects critically important habitats for numerous iconic species including elk, bison, wolves, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, bighorn sheep, and cutthroat trout. Surrounded by the peaks of the Teton and Gros Ventre Mountain Ranges, this refuge is made up of over 24,700 acres of grasslands, wetlands, and forests. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has committed to conserving this land and the habitats within it since 1912 for present and future generations to enjoy. As the wintering home to one of the world’s largest elk herds, it is an ideal location for winter wildlife watching!

Winter Elk Laying Down

On the National Elk Refuge, elk are typically visible from mid-December through early April, although they can migrate here as early as November depending on snowfall. The herds come in from Grand Teton National Park, the Gros Ventre Wilderness, and even as far as Yellowstone National Park. The incredible migration and mass congregation of these elk (up to 11,000 individuals!) make touring this area a unique and fascinating experience. By embarking on our Best Jackson Hole Winter Wildlife Tour or Jackson Hole Half Day Winter Wildlife Tour, you’ll have the opportunity to explore Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge up close. Taking a horse-pulled sleigh ride puts you right in the middle of the action amongst the herds, achieving otherwise impossible intimate viewing opportunities. The elk don’t get spooked by the horses, so you get some time to experience being close to them without much influence on their natural behaviors. Our passionate nature guides will share their knowledge about the land and species as you explore, enhancing your visit with a fascinating context of the history and ecology of the area.

bull elk Yellowstone National Park
Bull elk on the National Elk Refuge in winter

In addition to elk, you may spot coyotes on the prowl for rodents, or perhaps a red fox. On very fortunate days you may be able to spot a wolf! As elk make up the bulk of a wolf’s winter diet, they follow the herds to the refuge. Bears are not present during this time as they are hibernating, but predators of all different sizes can travel through these habitats, even ones as small as the tenacious ermine weasel. Bald eagles and golden eagles are present on the landscape, scanning for prey opportunities from a tree or cruising the skies. Exploring the eastern side of the refuge, you’ll find buttes that are more sheltered from snowy conditions that will reward you with scenes of bighorn sheep performing their breeding season rituals. Hearing the crack of perfectly aligned horns from dueling rams echo through the arctic air adds to the thrill of the adventure.

A Bull Elk Standing On A Snowy Ridge Surrounded By Mountains In Grand Teton National Park

Explore With Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris

Because all of our tours are customizable, we are able to adapt your itinerary to ensure you visit the best locations for a chance to see the species that you are most excited for. With top of the line optics, we will get you the best view possible during sightings with the use of individual binoculars, and a spotting scope to get an impressive, close-up look. At Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, we are in the business of helping you fall in love with nature and create memories that will last a lifetime. Our excellent guides will work hard to bring you the most authentic and enjoyable visit to Jackson Hole. Pack your parkas and come experience the wild side of winter with us!


Monica Robinson
Our Expert

Monica Robinson

Writer / Naturalist Guide
See Bio