Photographer Henry Holdsworth sees firsthand the joy wildlife brings to people.
“I’ve been out with people who have wanted to see wolves their entire lives,” he said. “And we’ll end up between a pack. The wolves will start howling back and forth to each other, and people just start crying. Nature brings out certain emotions in people.”
Everyone in the valley, whether a seasoned vet or a newcomer, can take advantage of fall wildlife migration patterns. As animals move to lower elevations in preparation for winter they can be more easily seen. Here’s how.
First things first: safety.
“It’s important that one doesn’t get caught in the moment of trying to get that photo or that great selfie or whatever,” said Kevin Taylor, a naturalist with Teton Science Schools. “Never forget why you’re there and what you’re doing. You never want to get that great picture at the cost of stressing out that animal.”
Even if they aren’t showing anxiety some animals internalize stress through higher heart and respiratory rates.
Experts recommend that you stay 100 yards from bears and wolves, even in your car, and 25 yards from all other wildlife. When Laura Krusheski of Jackson Hole Eco Tour Adventures led Idahoans Chris and Iris Evans into the park Saturday, the tour stumbled across a bear jam — traffic that backs up around a bear spotting.
A female grizzly was fattening up for winter by digging up roots just a few feet off the busy road. Rangers had to wave people through and make sure no one got too close.
Taylor thinks social media may be influencing unsafe behavior around wildlife.
“Just because someone else survived getting that close, and you saw it on Instagram or Facebook, doesn’t mean you will,” he said.
Keeping a safe and respectful distance encourages others to do the same.
“We’re always modeling thoughtful, ethical wildlife-watching practices,” Taylor said. “We have a responsibility to model the right behavior.”
Other practical tips for having a safe and enjoyable time viewing wildlife include bringing lots of layers and snacks — especially important for kids.
Capture the moment
Wildlife photography can be, in a word, fickle. Animals aren’t predictable, so capturing them in a photograph requires patience and luck.
Krusheski always tells her visitors that “there’s no guarantee with wildlife,” but that doesn’t mean a few tips and tricks can’t maximize your chances.
“Get out early and get out often,” said Holdsworth, a renowned landscape and wildlife photographer who owns Wild by Nature Gallery. “You’ll see more animals then than the rest of the day combined.”
It won’t hurt that the light is best at those times.
Being adaptable is key. Holdsworth is out in the park more than 200 days a year, so he knows the tricks of the trade.
“Like the animals, weather is unpredictable,” he said. “You’ve got to go with the flow and take advantage of the hand you’re given. For me the worst weather is the most interesting.”
Cloudy, stormy skies often make the saturation of leaves — or what’s left of them on the trees at this point — really pop.
Respect and subtlety will get you far when you’re trying to photograph, or just see, wildlife.
“Wildlife has always been kind to me,” Holdsworth said. “They’re my subjects. I make my living off of them. If you’re good, they’ll be good.”
Holdsworth gets his best shots once the animals know he’s there and go back to whatever they were doing before he arrived.
“If you spend the time they become accustomed to you,” he said. “That’s when you get the best, the most intimate shots. That’s when you capture their true self. I’d forgo thousands of shots for just one shot where you can sense that connection.”
Sometimes finding that connection means getting off the beaten path.
“Ninety percent of photographers and tourists go to four spots,” Holdsworth said. “If you go anywhere else there is hardly anyone around. Locals don’t need another barn shot.”
Now that you know how to safely and skillfully view and photograph wildlife, here are insiders’ tips on when and where your chances are best to see your favorites:
“Moose watching is better now than it has been all summer,” Taylor said.
Why? As the days get colder, moose — which have high body temperatures and need to stay cool — are spending more time out in the open.
If your want to see moose, learn how to identify the food they eat. Bitterbrush, abundant in the sage flats of the valley, is one of a moose’s favorite foods, along with cottonwoods and willows near river banks.
“Bitterbrush is almost like pizza with wheat crust,” Taylor said. “It tastes really good to them, and it’s really good for them, too.”
When the Evanses saw their first moose up close — a bull pursuing a cow near the entrance of Grand Teton National Park — you guessed it: The moose were munching on bitterbrush.
Great spots to check for moose include right around the town of Moose, down Moose-Wilson Road and junction, the west side of Blacktail Butte and the Ditch Creek area near the Teton Science Schools’s Kelly Campus. The Gros Ventre Campground is also a phenomenal spot during breeding season because there’s bitterbrush in the understory of cottonwood trees, giving moose the best of both worlds for noshing.
Bears are fattening up for winter
It was still dark outside when the Evanses got up for their wildlife viewing trip with Krusheski. More than anything they wanted to see a bear.
They got lucky with a grizzly bear sighting past Moran Junction, a bear known to locals and rangers as 793, aka Blondie. Where might you find similar luck?
Berry season is basically over, so don’t just flock to the patches. Some snowberries may still be on shrubs, with black bears occasionally feeding on them.
“When all the food is gone and there is nothing left in the fridge, you eat that one thing you don’t like because it’s all there is,” Taylor said. “That’s kind of how snowberries are to bears. They’re bitter, and actually mildly toxic to humans.”
Bears have one task in the fall: to fatten up. They consume more than 28,000 calories a day to prepare for winter.
Good spots to watch them in action recently have been slightly north of Oxbow Bend. Not only are there a lot of sagebrush flats where bears are scrounging up roots, but an elk carcass in the area has also caught the bruins’ attention.
This is also a good season for spotting wapiti. Elk bugles cut through the fog and drizzle encasing the valley on the Evanses’ wildlife tour.
“It kind of sounds like I do when I get out of bed in the morning,” Krusheski joked as she drove.
Laughs aside, she’s a repository of information about the geology, flora, fauna and history of the area.
The elk rut starts at the end of August and peaks in the middle of October, usually around the time the fall colors are also at their finest. Elk are also migrating down from higher altitudes, and eventually thousands will end up on the National Elk Refuge.
“We tend to see a lot of movement throughout the fall and early winter between the refuge and the neighboring park and forest lands,” said Lori Iverson, spokeswoman for the National Elk Refuge. “Any time anyone is wildlife viewing they need to be cautious due to the increased potential for animals to be on the road.”
Migration patterns are passed from mother to offspring.
“Elk are creatures of habit,” Krusheski said. “They do what their mama did.”
Elk aren’t as comfortable as other animals with being out of the trees without cover.
“If you don’t get to the elk by 7:30 or 8 a.m. you’re not going to see them again until the evening unless it’s a colder day,” Taylor said. “I like to think of elk as melting in and out of the trees. They’re there and then they’re not.”
If you want to scout for elk somewhere besides the refuge, Windy Point Turnout or Timbered Island are good places to start. The Willow Flats area near Jackson Lake Lodge and Jackson Lake Junction is also an “amazing spot to hear bugling and elk harem behavior,” Taylor said.
Once winter settles in elk patterns will be much more predictable.
“It’s pretty much a guarantee that in the winter, you’ll be able to see elk from various vantage points into the refuge,” Iverson said.
Bison and pronghorn out all day
“The great thing about bison and pronghorn is that they’re so forgiving,” Taylor said.
He encourages visitors to get up early for other animals and catch bison and antelope in the middle of the day when they are still out and about.
“You can see them all day long; they’re more tolerant of the heat,” Taylor said. “Even on an 85-degree day in Jackson Hole they’re out in the open.”
To see bison, head just south of the Moran Junction to the Elk Ranch Flats area.
And catch the pronghorn while you can.
“I do think we have more pronghorn than people in Wyoming,” Krusheski said.
That may be, but pronghorn will be leaving the valley any time now. They aren’t equipped to deal with deep snow, so they migrate south for 90 to 180 miles.
Sometimes a group of five to 50 ekes out a living on the National Elk Refuge. But if the winter is too harsh they might not make it.
Iverson said pronghorn, one of the fastest North American mammals, are a joy to watch.
“They’re beautiful animals, and they’re really fun to watch because you can see their wide-set eyes,” she said. “They [have] an adaptation to be able to see predators in their peripheral vision.”
The valley really is a special place.
“You can go to other ski towns, but they don’t have this amount wildlife in their backyards,” Holdsworth said. “Here, thanks to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, they’re so visible and accessible.”
Guides try to match visitors’ palpable excitement with the valley’s breathtaking beauty.
“I try to bring my ‘A’ game, 100 percent energy and enthusiasm every single time,” Taylor said. “I teach about this place like it’s my first trip. It might be my thousandth, but this might be a visitor’s first and only trip.
“Participants remind me to never take this place for granted,” Taylor said. “We come around the corner and they see the Tetons or they see a huge bull moose and they say, ‘Whoa.’ And I think to myself, ‘Whoa is right.’”