With two National Parks within a stone’s throw Jackson Hole has the unique privilege of having two of the largest protected areas surrounding our town’s borders. As a result we have some fantastic opportunities to see wildlife you will not see anywhere else. After living in Jackson Hole for a few years I am no expert, but I do have some helpful hints to maximize the amount and variety of animals you will see when visiting Jackson.
The National Elk Refuge was established in 1912 after Jackson Hole blocked the natural migratory path of the Elk. The Refuge runs up against the border of the town, and provides some of the best photo opportunities of Elk. Elk are not the only animals that populate the 25,000 acre plot of land, there are 47 other species of mammals and over 147 species of birds. The best way to access the marvels of the refuge during your winter vacation is to book a tour at the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center.
One of the other families of mammals you can find is Bighorn Sheep. The Sheep spend most of their time on the bute that borders the Southeast side of the Refuge. They migrate to the butte to avoid the harsh winters and many predators of Jackson’s eastern boundary, the Gros Ventre Mountains. I had seen the typical footage of male Bighorns in rut, competing to mate, which occurs in November, but to see these massive animals in person is incomparable. The herd that populates Miller Butte has males that weigh up to 300 lbs! If you have rented a car for your visit here it’s easy to head out and find Bighorns. If you take the National Elk Refuge Road, the butte is the first large hill on your left.
The third large mammal that populates the Refuge are Bison. With an estimated population of around 1,000 the Bison on the Refuge are the largest managed population in the world. Last winter’s freeze thaw cycle lead to food being less accessible, and forced the Bison to attempt to use Jackson’s well kept lawns as fodder. With a literal bull in a china shop scenario on their hands, the National Elk Refuge staff were forced to take a stand with trucks and rubber bullets. There are only a few towns in the country who face the legitimate threat of a Bison stampede, Jackson is definitely one of them. Don’t let this short story scare you though, most of the time Bison are no more dangerous than cows, as long as you keep your distance. The herd(s) of Bison spend their time all over the refuge, but The National Elk Refuge Road, and Gros Ventre Road are the best places to find these unbelievably weird animals.