If there were one iconic mammal native to Jackson Hole it might be the Rocky Mountain Elk. This animal was the motivation for establishing the National Elk Refuge, which resides just north of downtown Jackson. Created in 1912 (fun fact, two years before Jackson was incorporated as a town) this refuge preserves vital winter foraging habitat for elk. Instinctually, this species will begin to move into the boundaries of this protected land every winter as they seek a milder landscape that will increase their chances of surviving a testing time of year. On average the National Elk Refuge will accrue 7,000-8,000 elk. With a much milder start to the Winter of 2023/23 in Jackson Hole compared to last season, the migratory behaviors of multiple wildlife species only just began around mid-December. Currently, there might be a couple hundred elk within the refuge, but that number could dramatically increase overnight with the arrival of another winter storm.
As of December 16th, the National Elk Refuge sleigh rides, provided by the Double H Bar Ranch, have begun. Due to low snow conditions, the traditional horse-drawn sleighs are currently horse-pulled wagons, but as snow continues to fall this will change soon. The guides for this tour are taking visitors as close as possible to the small clusters of elk that are within range and providing valuable knowledge about the history of the refuge and its value to the ecosystem.
If entering the National Elk Refuge via the Refuge Road, which is accessed by driving east past the town square along Broadway Avenue, there is a 3.5-mile stretch open to the public where a diversity of wildlife can potentially be spotted. At this time the Bighorn Sheep have already migrated from the mountains and to their winter home on Miller Butte. It is currently the breeding season for this species, so the rams are exhibiting their competitive head-butting behaviors. Other animals that might be found in the refuge during this time of year would be eagles, coyotes, Red Fox, Trumpeter Swans and potentially even the elusive Gray Wolf.
If paying a visit to the National Elk Refuge & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center make sure to check out the exhibits and speak with a Naturalist about any questions you might have. If very interested in observing and learning about animals in the refuge, the US Fish & Wildlife also provides free vehicle-based two-hour wildlife excursions. These are offered Monday through Wednesday from 2-4pm, and Thursdays from 3:30-5:30pm. Make your reservations for these excursions at the visitor center, and space is limited so if you are interested do not hesitate!