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Best of the Tetons

Bull with a Grand Backdrop

Photographing Large Game Animals in Grand Teton National Park:

 Moose, Elk, Bison, Deer, Pronghorns, and a few others.

Wildlife Banner

The Tetons have a large variety of species of both large and small mammals. This page contains images of the larger ones, most of which are on visitor’s “bucket list” of desired subjects. Some are easier to find than others. Some are easier to find than photograph. Elk and Deer are hunted in the region and are typically wary of humans. Pronghorns are hunted in areas south of Jackson and are also more likely to stay out of close range. Bison and Moose seem to understand they are safe in the Park and seldom run attempt to evade humans.  These various dynamics can make photography challenging. The Park has several rules designed to keep both animals and tourists safe. Other rules are in place to keep from stressing the animals as they go about their life’s business. To get good photos, it also helps to know a little bit about each subject—like what they eat, when they are up and visible, where they get water, and so forth. This page is intended on helping with all of these topics.

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Park Rules

Rules for Grand Teton National Park’s two major predators—bears and wolves— require people to stay back to at least 100 yards. And, that includes while being inside your vehicle!  The 100 Yard Rule(s) The page contains the actual wording in the Park Compendium. The park’s compendium also addresses other animals in the park. For all other animals, the rules require people to stay back to at least 25 yards. People are not permitted to change any animal’s behavior—regardless of the distance. Lastly, visitors are required to follow the orders of a ranger or on-duty volunteer. Again, you might be well outside the legal distance, but if they ask or tell you (or a group) to move back, you simply must do it. A few areas, like Willow Flats, are closed to human entry all year long and other areas like the Snake River bottom are closed during the winter months. Click the link to read the actual rules for yourself. I carry a “Rangefinder” with me almost all the time so I know how far I am from a subject.

Bison Tourons

Bison Tourons

Distance Rules for Moose, Elk, Bison, Deer, Pronghorns and Bighorns are clearly defined as 25 yards. The same would apply for Foxes, Coyotes, Badgers, Eagles, Owls, Hawks, Meadowlarks, Beavers, and so forth. How about Chipmonks, Ground Squirrels, Butterflies, Beetles, and Bluebirds? Of the group, Bison are potentially the most dangerous animal in the park. Yellowstone gives out a florescent yellow sheet advising people of the extreme danger of bison, however there are many areas of GTNP where people can drive and never pick up a map or information about rules or dangers. Antelope Flats is an example, along with the Moose-Wilson Road if entering at Moose. Some rules appear to be “gray” and not simply black and white. Even since the new rules were implemented, the Park Service allows people to weave through a herd of Bison on the road. I’ve even watched Park rangers and personnel drive through the herds. In my opinion, the most dangerous zone in the park is along Antelope Flats Road, as seen in the photo above.

Moose Tourons

Moose Tourons

Recently, Moose have been moved higher on the Park’s watch list. Rangers have become much less tolerant—even when people are well outside the legal distance window. The “long lens” professional photographers are being grouped in with point-and-shoot and cell phone photographers as problems the Park Service needs to solve. At least in my experience, the pro photographers are most likely to yell out to a short lens photographer to move back if they are getting ridiculously close. I don’t think the long lens photographers are “the problem”. At the same time, the Gros Ventre Campground probably needs a better “ranger presence” during the peak fall periods—made worse by the fact other campgrounds in the park close early and push more campers into one congested area with moose doing what they have been doing for decades.

Photography Suggestions:

I guess the top section of this page could sound a bit like a “rant”, but that’s not what this Feature Post is supposed to be about. It’s just a necessary evil in regards to the rest of the page. Lots more people die from climbing accidents or boating accidents than are injured in any way by animals in the park. Whew…I’m glad that’s behind me!

But wait!…

Short Lenses, Pads, & Phones

One more thing. I am not sure how many people reading this site are what you might call a “long lens” photographer? I write this blog to help everyone! Still, this photo and the one above it illustrate an important issue in regards to wildlife photography. In both cases, when I took the shots, I would have been a way, way back from the scenes with my telephoto lens to capture a wide scene like this. I would have needed to be pulled back to 200mm on my 200-400mm lens, too. From where I was set up, I could have zoomed in and captured just the moose feeding on the bushes, and I could have cropped that images to show just his head, the top of the bushes, and his antlers. Many of the point-and-shoot, pad, and phone photographers “want” those shots. Right? To get the same shots, they have to move close. That’s a problem! In many cases, that is THE problem the Park Service needs to address.

So, my first suggestion to anyone wanting to take wildlife shots: Buy at least some sort of consumer camera body and a reasonably good, mid-priced zoom lens! Many of them are very capable of taking wonderful images, and despite the claims of all the phone and pad makers, they simply can’t take the same quality images. The glass is not as good and the sensors are very small. I am a Nikon shooter, using some of their top flight gear, so I am more familiar with their equipment than Canon’s offerings. Canon will have equally capable gear. Check out a Nikon D5200 body and a 28-300mm lens. Or look into a Nikon 80-400mm lens if you have the budget. My son has a Nikon D5200 body. I own a 28-300mm “carry around” lens, and I hear nothing but rave reviews on the 80-400 mm VRII lens. If I had the money, I’d add one. My wife has a hybrid point and shoot Nikon P7800 and it does a great job, but it isn’t really designed for wildlife and long distance shots. Other bodies might include the Nikon D610, Nikon D810, and the recently announced D750. The links take you to B&H, but you can also order one from Perfect Light Camera and Supply in Idaho Falls.

My GearPersonally, I use a Nikon D4 and a Nikon D800 body. (Newer versions are D4s and D810). I typically use a Nikon 200-400mm lens for most wildlife shooting and I almost always use a tripod. I like the option of the zoom. I don’t own a 500mm or 600mm and seldom feel like I need on in GTNP. I’d probably change my mind on the longer ones if I were trying to take a lot of photos of wolves and bears in GTNP. The 100 Yard Rule(s)

Before I get into the individual species, you might find this page helpful:  Where to Find Wildlife in the Tetons and JH Area

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 Photographing Moose:

Gaston and Custer Sparring

Moose live  generally in two zones: River bottoms and in the sage flats. They like to strip leaves off willow branches along the river and they like the bitterbrush often found where sagebrush grows. Additionally, at certain times of the year, you might find them in shallow ponds or streams feeding on aquatic vegetation. Often they will switch it up day to day or even bitterbrush in the morning and willow leaves in the afternoon. They will usually be visible only during the pre-dawn period and into the first hour or so of morning light. I find getting shots of them in the evenings tougher, but not impossible. They tend to get up to feed only after the sun drops behind the Tetons, so most evening shots are in low light or shadows. Once you leave a moose bedded down in the morning, they’ll usually be somewhere within 50 yards of the same spot by late afternoon.

Web_MooseCowCalf_June19The first baby moose are usually seen around the first week of June. Many of the adults look terrible at that time of the year as they shed their winter fur. Other than hoping to find calves with the cows, I normally don’t spend a lot of time trying to photograph them.  Bulls start showing bulbs of velvet in early June and by late June, their fur looks clean and bright and their antlers begin to fill out. By mid to late August, I am out looking for them on a regular basis.

Bulls live a solitary life most of the summer as their antlers grow. Occasionally, you’ll see two bulls in the same area, but seldom spend much time around cows. Effectively, they have no interest whatsoever and seem more annoyed by their presence. Cows with calves of the year stay close to them and are very protective. Also note, moose in and around most of GTNP are mostly accustomed to tourists, but you have to understand back country moose can be much more dangerous. This is a park and not a zoo, so you have to take some initiative to stay safe.

Custer in Velvet August 29, 2012

By late August and into the first week of September, many of the bulls will begin to strip their velvet. Finding moose is tough enough, but being there when they strip the velvet is not an easy task. They can strip most of the velvet in an hour, so being there at the right hour is the challenge. With a telephoto lens, you can stay back and let them go about their task. Moose typically find water once a day. Sometimes they move to a river or stream or get a drink in an irrigation ditch that criss-cross parts of the valley floor.

Custer Losing Velvet September 3, 2012

The photo above is the same moose as the one on the right in the previous image, but taken four days later. In wildlife photography, there is a lot of waiting around for something to happen, but the only way to actually get this kind of shot is stay with the moose until it does. I knew the moose was ready to strip his velvet and kept going back each day.

Washakie in Grass

Bulls spend a couple of days polishing their antlers, then begin roaming the valley floor looking for cows nearing estrus.

Harbinger of the Rut

Bulls can tell when a cow is ready by sniffing their urine. A Flehmen response, like the one in the photo above, is often called a “lip curl”. Anytime you see a cow urinate, be ready. At this time of the year, large bulls and fight over a hot cow, but I’ve never personally witnessed a serious fight, much less photographed one. Sparring takes place fairly often, but usually not between to prime bulls during the rut.

Bulls thrash their antlers in willows, small trees, and sometimes tents. They are either trying to polish their antlers, make a gesture towards other bulls, or are trying to impress a cow. Sometimes, a bull will work himself into a “tizzy” while thrashing, and if you see this behavior, be prepared to move back and be ready to find some place safe. They will drop their head, thrash and dance around small willows, and act erratically. Moose will drop their ears back to their neck as another bull moose approaches. Cows will do the same when another cow is too close to her calf. But, if you are too close, watch for the down ears as they stare at you. You can see the discontent in the moose around the campers near the top of the page. They will let you know if you are too close, and you better listen!

Moose Gathering November 13, 2011

By late October and early November, some of the bulls gather in the sage flats and will spend much of the month of November and December in fairly tight groups.

Web Bull Moose Aspens Dec13

Bulls can still roam around the valley floor, sometimes alone again.

Web Lost Antler Dec7

By mid to late December and into the first week or so of January, bulls begin to drop their antlers. Normally, I get shots like this one from my vehicle.

Web Bulls Sparring Dec7

During the Winter, a scene like this is not that uncommon.

Web Moose Cow Calf Dec8

Cows will stay with their calves all year and into the fall of the second year, at which point one of the bulls will chase it off.

Moose recap: Photography for moose isn’t much different than any other subject. It just takes a lot of field time, some patience, persistence, and even some luck.

Photographing Bison:

Web Frosted Bison Dec12

Bison spend most of the Winter in the far Northeast corner of the National Elk Refuge—after the bison hunt on the refuge. They are smart enough to stay away until the shooting stops. They now know to stay inside Grand Teton National Park (north of the Gros Ventre River) and out of the National Forests. It is possible to find a few herds of bison in the early winter snow around Kelly.

Web Bull Bison Dec26

An adult bison can run as fast as most horses. While they might appear docile, I don’t trust any of them any farther than I could throw one of them. Considering an adult bull can weigh a ton, that’s not far at all!  Normally, I take photos of bison from the window of my vehicle or next to my vehicle. I don’t suggest ever being very far from safety, and I definitely wouldn’t walk out into a field to them. I’ve seen people standing behind a barbed wire fence or a buck rail fence with bison not far away. That is absolutely no deterrent to a bison. They can jump or go through all but the tallest and most sturdy fences.

Web_BisonCowCalf_May23

Most baby bison, or “red dogs” are born in late May and early June. Sometimes, you can find them amongst Arrowleaf Balsom Root plants or Purple Lupine. Cows will normally still be scraping off their winter coat at the time.

Smokey Tetons

Bison roam most of the region east of the Snake River, primarily up on the sage flats. Being a grazing animal, they will seldom be in the same place two days in a row, but are still easy to spot against the sagebrush. Bison and Pronghorns are often seen in the same zones. There are several creeks and numerous irrigation ditches in the sage flats, and they often go to the Gros Ventre or Snake River to drink.  In this shot, the Tetons were dimmed by smoke from an Idaho fire.

Web_BisonFirstSun_July19

On this morning, the first rays of light were being amplified by smoke. I took this one along Mormon Row road, a common place to see bison. In Grand Teton National Park, you will almost always be able to find some bison. Unlike many of the other large game animals, they stay hidden in plain sight.

Rolling in the Dust

Bison, especially bulls, like to roll in the dirt. I like to catch at least one horn, one eye, and some legs. Having another bison in the scene can help a viewer know what the other shape is on the ground without having to decipher the scene. They will typically roll up twice or three times on each side, then get up and shake off the dust and dirt. Occasionally, one will do the entire process twice in the same spot.

Bidon Face

Don’t get close! This bull walked up to my vehicle while I was stuck in a “bison jam”. I took the photos out the window with a telephoto lens resting over a bean bag. Again, this is an animal worthy of your utmost respect.

Photographing Elk

Web Elk Refuge Sleigh Ride Jan31

One sure fire time to see elk is in the winter while taking a Sleigh Ride on the National Elk Refuge:

Web Bulls Waiting Jan31

The Sleigh Ride will take you very close to wintering elk. This might be the “deal” of the season in Jackson Hole.

By late April and early May, the herds move off the Refuge and begin their journey north. This is a great time to find lots of elk, but they are still wary of people. While there are ongoing efforts to stop the “hunt”, officially called the Elk Reduction Program, some hunting is still happening inside the Park’s boundaries.  Elk are normally only seen very early in the morning and very late in the evening. They move back into the forests before most people are finished with breakfast.

Bull Elk with Calf

Elk follow pretty much the same schedule as Moose each year.  Adults will be shaggy in early summer, then appear with beautiful new coats. The calves are born in early June and are sought out by the grizzlies, especially around Willow Flats. Bulls begin growing their new velvet covered antlers until fully formed. As Fall approaches, bull elk shed the velvet and then attempt to gather cows into harems. By early November, or into mid November, elk begin trying to make their way to the National Elk Refuge, but they must first make their way through the gauntlet of hunters waiting for them. In 2014, only antlerless elk kills are allowed. This image was taken a bit before sunrise in late October with my camera set to a high ISO of around 1600. I took it from inside my window with a telephoto resting over a bean bag in the window. Only a few minutes after this shot, the bull and his harem disappeared into the lodge pole pine forest near Jenny Lake.

Photographing Mule Deer

Buck Mule Deer

Grand Teton National Park has a healthy population of Mule Deer and even a small population of White-tailed Deer. The latter are harder to find and harder to photograph. I seldom see does with newborn fawns, but then I don’t spend a lot of time looking for them. I believe the Mule Deer rut starts a little later than moose and they typically drop their antlers later than the other ungulates. In my experience, you have a better chance photographing Mule Deer from your vehicle window than out of the vehicle.

Web_MuleDeer_Jan21

Some bucks are more tolerant than others. If they don’t run immediately, some will graze and feed with you tagging along. Quite a few Mule Deer winter around the buildings and barns in Kelly, and this group seems to be much more tame than other parts of the park.

Web_MuleDeer_Jan22

Occasionally, a mule deer will allow you to get a few quick shots before moving back into the forest.

Web Mule Deer Dec29

Young Mule Deer bucks, like young Moose bulls, spar regularly until it’s time to fight for real. By December, many of Mule Deer work their way to the town of Kelly or along the Butte near the National Museum of Wildlife Art. They can be seen and photographed along the highway during much of the Winter. Mule Deer are also seen inside the town of Jackson, however less often than in earlier years. Feeding them is now illegal.

Photographing Pronghorns

Pronghorns in Gold

Most Pronghorn photos you get in Grand Teton National Park will looks something like this one. They typically stay off the road a ways and will often run if you get out of your vehicle. The gold light was a result of the first few minutes of morning light passing through smoke from an Idaho fire.

I like this kind of shot with an animal being part of a landscape.

Occasionally, a Pronghorn will pose on a hillside for a few minutes.

During the rut, Pronghorns lose much of their wary nature. This buck caught sight of a couple of does on the other side of Mormon Row and ran right by me. Opportunities like this develop quickly, then are over just as fast. It is easy to miss them, but rewarding if you are both lucky and prepared.

AntelopeDoe1_July3

This doe is a little shaggy, but she looked nice against the dark background. Bighorns normally leave the valley and winter near Pinedale or Big Piney. During the 2013-2014 winter, a group of around 25 stayed in the valley and spent most of their time on the National Elk Refuge.

Photographing Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats

Impact Nov21

This section is a bit of a “trick question”. While there are some Bighorn Sheep in Grand Teton National Park, they are seldom seen by an average tourist. I’ve never seen one in the Park. I’ve been told there is a population of them on some of the slopes of Mount Moran. Not many roads there! Instead, most people photograph Bighorns at Miller Butte on the National Elk Refuge in December and January. The first groups start showing up around Thanksgiving. Earlier in the year, some bighorns can be spotted near the campground at Slide Lake and farther out the Gros Ventre near Red Hills Ranch. Still, these are not really part of GTNP.

The other half of the topic above is Mountain Goats. They are not native to GTNP. The Park Service is not welcoming them in the park and are asking people to report any sightings. A healthy herd of Mountain Goats can be seen in late Winter in the Snake River Canyon near Alpine Junction. At certain times of the year, Mountain Goats graze on grasses next to the road while still in their beautiful winter coats. Here’s a page dedicated to  Mountain Goats of the Snake River Canyon:

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Comments (6)

  1. Carl Gandolfo

    Great article, Mike!! This must have taken a really long time to put together so thank you for taking that time to do so!!

  2. Mike –

    As always, an excellent post. As photographers we need to become the role models for visitors and always exhibit ethical and responsible photographic practices. This post is exemplary in showing visitors how to approach and photograph our wildlife without causing stress to the animals or risk to themselves. Thanks for the great work.

  3. LEo Miller

    Mike, another outstanding article filled with important information as well as valuable insight gained from your many years of experience. Thank you for taking the time to put this together and sharing.

  4. Leo, this page started out as actually part of the Custer (moose) page, but it kept getting longer and more detailed. I felt the info might get lost inside that post, so I split it out into a new post and then added the other large mammals to the discussion. I picked a few photos of phone, pad and point and shoot people to illustrate some of the issues, but of course I had a couple of people with 70-200 lenses too close and that should have known better. I find that to be the exception rather than the rule, however. I drove through the campground on at least two occasions this year and saw the zoo of photographers, campers, tourists, rangers, and volunteers. I left immediately both times. There would have been no way I could have taken a single shot I would have wanted. Much like the bear photography situations, I find where all the people are, then go somewhere else. Anywhere else!

  5. Paul Titus

    Mike, Great post as usual. Thanks to your info I have had several successful photo trips to GTNP in the past year, and am looking forward to more in the coming years. I still have several images left to fill my bucket list.

  6. Hi thanks for the article it’s awesome! It was good to see you I got some good shots of Lewis the moose that day. I really like your shot of the leaping red squirrel!

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