Yellowstone and Grand Teton are two of the best national parks in the United States for viewing wildlife. These two parks are part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), which covers 19 million acres in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Each year, millions of people visit these areas, many of whom travel here specifically to see the variety of animals that roam freely in this region.
In the GYE, the "Big Five" refers to the most popular animals that visitors hope to see in the parks-American bison, elk, gray wolves, grizzly bears and moose. Whether you are driving, cycling, hiking, rafting, kayaking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or just sitting on a bench, you are sure to see a variety of animals during your visit, but the Big Five continue to win the hearts of our guests during their Backroads vacations.
Due to the abundance of wildlife viewing and the natural beauty of the region, these parks have become some of the most popular in the country--with Yellowstone one of the country's top five most visited parks, seeing over three million visitors each year. Unfortunately, with the influx of tourists, there have been significant impacts to the parks' fragile ecosystem.
The best way to reduce these impacts is to educate people about the wildlife in the region so that when they visit, they know how to properly recreate and enjoy one of our most cherished national landscapes.
Yellowstone's bison, more commonly referred to as buffalo, are the oldest and largest public bison herd in the United States. Bison are a must-see animal during any park visit, since they stand as an iconic symbol of the region and the state of Wyoming. Bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and run as fast as 40 miles per hour. On any given trip to Yellowstone, you are almost guaranteed to spot one of these oddly shaped herbivores grazing at a distance. On many occasions, they slowly saunter across the park roads, causing what we at Backroads call an "am jam"-- when traffic gets backed up due to the excitement of an animal sighting. While it is easy to get very close to a bison (sometimes they will walk right up to your car), it is important to keep your distance, because if scared or aggravated, these huge animals will get aggressive. There have been people harmed by bison in the park, but as long as you give them space, bison are fun animals to watch.
The Yellowstone-Teton area is also home to over 30,000 to 40,000 free-ranging elk, also known as wapiti to the Shawnee, meaning white-rumped deer. Elk spend their summers in Yellowstone's plentiful grasslands and then migrate to warmer areas with less snowfall and more vegetation for the winter. Elk are not spotted as often as bison, but the bull elk are one of the most photographed animals in the park, probably because of their impressive racks. Bulls start growing their antlers around one year old and then in the spring each year, they drop their antlers and grow a new pair. In late summer, elk rub the "velvet" off of their antlers and you can see the signs of their rubbing on trees throughout the parks. Some visitors are lucky enough to find elk antlers on the ground within park boundaries, but antlers are not allowed to be taken as a souvenir.
One of the parks' most elusive animals is the gray wolf. In 1995, the National Park Service reintroduced wolves and has slowly been observing their revival. Count yourself lucky if you see a wolf during your visit to the park--because there are so few of them, they are still quite hard to find.
GYE is one of only five regions in North America where grizzly bears are found. Populations have been threatened by habitat loss and hunting. Now only about 600 live within the Yellowstone-Teton area. Grizzly bears generally don't attack humans unless they feel threatened. There are infrequent grizzly attacks in the park but last year 14 grizzly bears had to be euthanized because of interactions with humans. In many cases, bear-human interactions can be avoided by better understanding how to recreate safely in bear territory. For example, it's important to make sure food is not left out for bears to eat and to make noise while hiking so bears are scared away before there is the chance of a startling encounter.
Moose are a fairly frequent yet very special animal to spot when visiting the parks. Moose tend to hang out in marshy meadows or along the banks of rivers and lakes. They usually travel solo or in small groups. The long legs of moose allow them to run through a forest of downed logs at full gallop and trudge through deep snow that deer and elk tend to avoid in the winter time. Moose are most often found in Teton, but due to the fencing from historical ranching properties that have been grandfathered into national parkland, moose and other wildlife in the park are in some areas unable to access water sources, are blocked from migration corridors or risk entanglement. The Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, with the help of volunteers, is currently working on removing miles of obsolete barbed-wire fencing in an effort to make it easier for animals to roam freely.
With such abundant wildlife and the unparalleled remoteness of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, visiting the parks can make you feel like you are going back in time to explore the Wild West. At one time this was a completely pristine area, when animals were exponentially more abundant and free to roam without the stress of human impact. In order to preserve what is still left of this wild frontier, we need to make a concerted effort to educate ourselves about wildlife and how to recreate responsibly. For example: always view wildlife from a distance; keep food contained at all times; or spend time volunteering with a local conservation group. The more people know about our natural environment, the greater their appreciation will be for efforts to protect these sacred landscapes.
To learn more, here are links to additional information:
* Photographs provided by Josh Metten, a Jackson Hole-based naturalist and photographer. Visit https://www.facebook.com/JoshMettenPhotography/