Winter wildlife viewing is better than you think

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – If you think winter is for the birds, you’re right. Especially hawks, eagles, and great grey owls. If you go into hibernation all season because you think the great outdoors is in a deep freeze stupor, you’re missing the point…and the wildlife.

An argument could be easily made that winter is THE time to get out and view wildlife. Buckrail talked to two of the valley’s top wildlife touring outfitters and learned that the safari business in Jackson Hole is just getting good.

We chatted with Josh Metten, senior naturalist guide of Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, and Jason Williams, who owns Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris. Both offered tips on how to view wildlife safely and more effectively in winter. And both men were adamant about winter being a very productive time for view animals because they are more concentrated and in more accessible areas to see.

Bighorn sheep have come down from their usual 10,000 foot perches and are readily visible on the buttes in the Elk Refuge. (JH EcoTour Adventures)

“Hooved animals in particular have a winter range that is a small fragment of the area they summer on,” Metten said. “You’ve got elk and bison moving into the Refuge, bighorn sheep currently in the rut, bull moose congregating in herds of 20 or more, and thousands of migratory birds.

Metten added his groups have been sighting moose lately in their usual winter spot munching on bitterbrush on the sagebrush flats in Antelope Flats. Normally, fairly solitary animals, in winter moose can be seen in bunches of two dozen or more.

“Being a wildlife guide in the winter is pretty simple,” Williams said. “You’ve got moose on the flats and wolves on the valley floor. Elk and bison are in and around the feedgrounds. Bighorn sheep are down lower on the buttes in the Refuge. Even mountain goats come down in the Snake River Canyon near Alpine.”

“This is a winter snow sports destination but it is also a winter wildlife viewing destination that is one of the best in the world,” Metten said. “Wildlife viewing like this, with all that we can experience just minutes from town square in Jackson or the ski lifts, is something you don’t have anywhere else in the world.”

There are, like, a zillion swans in the Refuge right now. (JH EcoTour Adventures)

It’s been a bonanza of late for Metten and his guides. And sometimes all they have to do is look up.

“We have hundreds of migratory bald and golden eagles from Alaska and Canada. We have one of the best places to see rough-legged hawks in the winter,” Metten said. “And there is about a thousand trumpeter swans that make their way into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this time of year. Have you seen the ones on Flat Creek in the Refuge, lately?”

Williams noted the same and added wolves are often at the top of his clients’ wishlists.

“Wolves are one of the top animals that people want to see. And the valley floor of Jackson Hole has become almost as good as Lamar Valley [in Yellowstone] for sightings,” Williams said. “We saw wolves on around 60% of our trips last year. Three different packs area regularly visible. They follow prey in high country during summer. In winter they are on the east side of their terrain in the valley here.”

Williams added that snow makes it easier to spot canines as they run across the valley floor. Wolves and, especially smaller dogs like coyotes and fox, might go undetected in summer when they blend in more with the sagebrush. “They stand out better in winter against all the white snow,” Williams said.

Snow makes tracking a little easier in winter. (JH EcoTour Adventures)

Another benefit to snow is tracks. Metten and his guides enjoy sharing their knowledge about what animal made a print and what it might have been up to.

“Our ski and snowshoe tours in Grand Teton focus on natural history and interpretation, snow science, and track and sign,” Metten said. “Snow provides the opportunity to see what has been. Last winter, for instance, we actually observed a wolf kill with moose cow and calf. We could piece together the story from the tracks and sign. We also saw mountain lion tracks, grouse tracks, all within a very small area.”

Several of Williams’ guides undergo an intensive two-day CyberTracker course that originated in South Africa. They learn from a master tracker and pas on that information to their customers.

“One thing I would say about our guide service, or any guide service, is there is benefit to being taught some tips and tricks,” Williams said. “How to find animals and where to find animals—instead of just driving around hoping. And to be safe doing all of that. Risk management is a lot of what we do.”

Winter is hard on wildlife

“We’re a huge co-sponsor of the ‘Don’t Poach the Powder’ campaign. It’s a big part of the advocacy work we do in the area,” Metten shared. “Winter is a really, really hard time on animals. They are relying on winter reserves and basically slowly starving to death. So your dog chasing a deer or bumping into a moose while skiing could make the difference between that animal not making it and dying.”

Bison are especially visible early in winter on the Refuge. (JH EcoTour Adventures)

And dogs aren’t the only concern. Winter driving is reponsible for more animal deaths than anything else we humans do. “We lost a huge number of deer to road collisions last year because they were concentrating on the highways because they had no other place to go,” Metten said. The East Gros Ventre Butte, runs to the airport, Broadway, and the highway south of Jackson are all perennial hotspots for mule deer encounters on area roadways.

Get on the bus (or in the van)

Both Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris and Jackson Hole Ecotour Adventures offer winter excursions sure to exceed expectations of both visitors and locals. Jh EcoTour Adventures began offering cross-country skiing and snowshoeing tours in half- or whole-day packages this winter. Both also include sleigh rides on the National Elk Refuge as another way to get up close and personal with elk, bison, and other wildlife.


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