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Best of the Tetons

Photographing Large Game Animals in Grand Teton National Park:

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Copyrights and Sharing:

Please note that the images on my sites are copyrighted and protected by the US Copyright Office. You are welcome and encouraged to use the Social Media Icons below to share the pages on the site, but please do not take/borrow/steal the images—and absolutely do not use them for any other purpose!

The Bison Rut in Grand Teton National Park:

Photos of August’s Annual Rut.

Most of the GTNP herd of American Bison spend their summer in the South end of the park. Another herd hangs around Elk Flats farther north and some move into the river bottoms around Triangle X Ranch. Starting in late July and continuing into August, the largest bulls locate a cow and hang with her until it is time to breed. The actual mating happens at night or very early in the morning. I’ve never seen it, and I don’t recall ever seeing a photo of the act.

Bison Heads

Yellowstone’s bison are famous for their fighting amongst the bulls, however it is much less common here. A few years ago, the National Elk Refuge began a program of hunting Bison.  The idea was to thin the herd back to some “objectives” number. At least from an outsider’s viewpoint, it appears there are less large bulls now, and each of them have plenty of cows around them. Fighting to obtain a prime cow is not necessary. Young bulls spar and stir up dust, but heavy duty fights between prime bulls is not common—at least while I have been out observing them.

Bison In Gold

The photos on this page were all taken on August 3rd, 2014 along Mormon Row. Smoke from an unknown fire filled the Northeast and East. As the sun began to rise, the smoke created a beautiful gold “filter” that affected almost all of my shots that morning.

Bison Bull In Gold

I pointed my camera towards the rising sun as this bull crossed some of the dry pastures.

Young Bull Bison

Young bulls bide their time for quite a few years before being ready to enter the breeding pool.

Bull Bison Profile

The larger breeding sized bulls roam from cow to cow looking for a mate.

Morning Caress

Morning Caress: There can be a fair amount of “courtship”, but once a big bull finds a potential mate, it will not let her get far away.

Bison Portrait

Bison Portrait: I stayed in my truck and shot out the window almost all morning using a 200-400mm lens. When not on a tripod, I like Vibration Reduction (VR) turned on. When I do get out, I never like to be very far from my truck around bison. They are very fast, powerful and unpredictable—made potentially worse during the rut.

Behavior

Behavior: It is fairly easy to fill a card with profile shots of bison. I like the challenge of capturing some sort of “behavior”.

Rolling in the Dust

Rolling in the Dust: The biggest bulls seem to like to roll in the dirt and kick up a lot of dust. I hardly ever see a cow roll like this, so it must have something to do with impressing the girls.

Bison Rolling

Bison Rolling:

Shaking the Dust

Shaking the Dust: Once a big bull rolls, it will always stand and shake off the dust.

Just the Face

Just the Face: This is a heavily cropped image. You can get a better feel of how wild and savage one of these big boys could be.

Bison Against the Grand

Bison Against the Grand: There are quite a few places in the country where you can photograph Bison. There is only one place on earth where you get this backdrop! I like to include it when I can, but it takes a wider lens than the telephoto lens I used on most of the earlier images.

Roaming Herd

Bison Notes: I think the best area to look for Bison in GTNP is along the Gros Ventre Road, along the East Boundary Road, along Mormon Row and Antelope Flats Road. I mentioned the herd at Elk Flats earlier, but they are usually farther out there. A couple of “two track” dirt roads cross the sage flats between the East Boundary Road and Mormon Row. Cars can usually make it across those roads except in the winter and after a big rain. Part of Mormon Row can be muddy and have deep ruts. I get through in my old truck, but I wouldn’t try it in the family vehicle after a rain. Bison move to the National Elk Refuge during the Winter months, but otherwise they are one of the most reliable large animal in the Park. With that said, you should also know Bison are grazers, so they will seldom be in the same place two days in a row.

Buffalo NickelBison Tidbits: You might have grown up calling these animals “buffalo”. Technically, they are “American Bison”. It’s difficult to completely abandon the old name when you might own a Buffalo nickel or see an old poster for Buffalo Bill. East of Cody, you can pass through the town of Buffalo. Pronghorns share a similar naming issue. Most people call them “antelope”. Some call them “pronghorn antelope”. Again, until the park service changes the name from Antelope Flats Road to Pronghorn Flats Road, it will be a hard name to change for some.

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The 100 Yard Rule(s)

In Grand Teton National Park, you must stay at least 100 yards from a bear or a wolf! And, you cannot stop and shoot out your vehicle window while within 100 yards!

Inside 100 yards, you cannot stand on your seat and take photos from a sun roof—never mind standing on a roof rack or in the back of a pickup. The way the law reads, and the way the park is enforcing the law, if a wolf or bear walks or grazes towards your vehicle, even if you were outside 100 yards originally, you must move your vehicle back if it gets within the 100 zone.

Please Note: Other than one paragraph talking about making this information known to visitors, this page is not intended on being critical of the Park, but instead is presented so you might know the Park rules before you get into trouble!

Bear AttackBefore reading any further down this page, you should watch this clip on YouTube called: Grizzly Bear Wake Up – Craighead Brothers Trying to Tag Semi-Conscious Bear. The Craighead Brothers might be lucky the bear was still groggy! The clip will set the stage for all that follows on this post!

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If you see a bear while driving through GTNP, you are allowed to drive by to get to your destination, even though the rule would technically prohibit you from getting closer than 100 yards. On the Moose/Wilson Road, a single bear could effectively close the road for an indefinite period of time if it grazed on Black Hawthorne berries for several hours. Allowing people to at least drive on by keeps the road open. Again, you can’t stop and you definitely can’t get out without exposing yourself to a ticket. (The image above was taken in 2007 with a 200-400 mm lens on a DX body. It was uncropped. The Grizzly filled the entire frame. At the time I took that photo, the Park Rangers were nearby and supervising the bear jam. I was out of the car and shooting with the aid of a tripod—just like the other 50 or more photographers and tourists).

The Park Service is not doing a great job of letting people know this distance rule. The rule is in the newsletter handout, but that assumes the tourists pick them up and assumes they read any of it. It is also possible to enter the Park through Moose and head south on the Moose/Wilson Road without ever having gone through a gate or station, then drive right into bear central. I think they need to follow Yellowstone’s lead and hand out a florescent yellow sheet with the rule in bold type, and I think they need a reasonably large sign at all entrances. They put up speed limit signs to let you know how fast you can drive, but do little to let people know the distance rules. Likewise, I find many people driving along the Gros Ventre Road don’t even know they are in the Park. After all, they didn’t go through a gate or pay station. Bears have been seen along Gros Ventre Road on numerous occasions over the past few years.

BearJam2005

Remember that TV commercial with the headline, “This is not your Father’s Oldsmobile”?  Well, this is not the same park you might have remembered from previous years! (The photo above was from 2005 and I blurred the faces). The rules officially changed a couple of years ago, but strict enforcement of the letter of law has only been going on for a relatively short period of time. I don’t know how many, but I know the Park rangers are handing out tickets now.  They are not just warning people anymore. Below is the rule copied from GTNP’s compendium:

GTNP COMPENDIUM UPDATE:

The compendium now states, “The following activities are prohibited:
a)   Willfully approaching, remaining, viewing, or engaging in any activity within 100 yards of bears or wolves, or within 25 yards of any other wildlife including nesting birds; or within any distance that disturbs, displaces or otherwise interferes with the free unimpeded movement of wildlife, or creates or contributes to a potentially hazardous condition or situation.
b)   Failure to remove one’s self to prescribed distances during inadvertent, accidental, casual or surprise encounters with wildlife.
c)   Failure to comply as directed by NPS staff (employees, volunteers, or agents) engaged in administering wildlife management operations or managing wildlife viewing opportunities.”

I wrote this post almost a year ago, but that was before the strict enforcement.  Animal Viewing Distances in GTNP

Bridger-Teton National Forest 100 Yard Rule:

GrizzlySowCubPair1_Sept15Bridger-Teton National Forest recently adopted new laws requiring people to be at least 100 yards from a bear. This affects the road over Togwotee Pass from Moran Junction to Dubois.

Related Story in JH New & Guide: B-T Bans Tells People to Give Bears 100 Yards.

Currently, I don’t have the exact wording, but will try to post it when I locate it. According to the article, the Forest Service will allow people to drive by and even park alongside the road as long as they stay in the vehicles. As I was quoted in the article, I don’t have a problem with that option. I took this photo from my vehicle last October during the Government Shutdown. I was comfortably safe in my vehicle with four or five other people pulled over. Some came and went, but there was never a large GTNP or YS style bear jam. I’d expect even less bear watchers along the highway during a year without a Government Shutdown, but if photographer flee from the rules in GTNP, it is possible to see more of them outside the park looking for Grizzlies. With increased Grizzly activity in the area, the Forest Service also changed a rule in the Turpin Meadows campground requiring hard sided campers.

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The GTNP “25 Yard Rule”:

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The GTNP compendium also states people need to stay 25 yards from other animals. Bison might be the most dangerous animal in the park, yet I’ve seen many people treat them as they might a dairy cow. Besides being dangerous, powerful, and unpredictable, they are very fast runners! This cycle driver drove close to the bull so the rider could get a quick photo. I was set up quite a ways off with my telephoto lens thinking my images might end up on the evening news! Around here, these kind of people are called “Tourons”. Moose and elk can also be dangerous and unpredictable.

The Variables:or within any distance that disturbs, displaces or otherwise interferes with the free unimpeded movement of wildlife, or creates or contributes to a potentially hazardous condition or situation.This one is trickier! It is not cut and dry like the actual yardage rules. In earlier days, many people would see a bear or wolf trying to cross the road. Some people would anticipate where they wanted to go and drive their vehicle to the spot and park. If two or three people moved to their crossing point, they’d have to walk parallel with the road attempting to find an opening, but were never guaranteed an open spot in which to pass. The 100 yard rule more or less eliminates that issue for the bears and wolves, but animals like pronghorns and bison may have to modify their movements to get around  people and vehicles. I could easily be accused of this very thing at some time over the years and I know how tempting it can be to advance the vehicle to get the approaching and crossing shots. You’ll just want to be aware of the rule and adjust accordingly.

The Other Variable: Failure to comply as directed by NPS staff (employees, volunteers, or agents) engaged in administering wildlife management operations or managing wildlife viewing opportunities.” I don’t particularly like this part of the law, but I have to obey it! I don’t mind a Law Enforcement Officer telling me to move back for whatever reason, yet the law also lists employees, volunteers, and agents. I’ve been around a scene where a volunteer tells me or a group of people to move back, even though we were well outside the legal distance. I am sure some of them don’t know how far 25 yards is, but once they say it, we have to follow their directions. I hear failure to follow their directions is a much bigger offense then simply being too close.

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Relative Distances:

Web_100Yards_July10_1200px

100 Yards at 400mm FX (16.6 mpx): This is a full frame image I took of myself standing at one goal line and triggering my camera set up at the goal line 100 yards away. (Click on it to see it at 1200 pixels wide.)   This was taken with a Nikon D4 and a 200-400 mm lens at 400mm.

100YardsDXCrop

100 Yards at 400mm with DX Crop. With a DX crop lens or if the FX camera was set to DX mode, I’d fill a larger area of the image. This is a 3200 x 2128 pixel crop of the original 4928 x 3280 pixel image. If using a 1.4 Teleconverter on a 400mm lens, I’d end up with an image in which I filled about the same area. With a 600 mm lens I’d fill the frame a little more. You can probably visualize the size of a bear or wolf relative to the full area of an image. Click this image to see it a 1200 pixels wide.

Distance Comments: You can do a similar test with your equipment, but taking the time to do my test lets me see about how large a bear might be at the optimum 100 yards. Unless you or the rangers have a rangefinder, you could be a few yards closer or 20-30 yards farther away. Most are not great at estimating this distance in the field. The 25 yard distance is much easier for me to estimate. I played baseball when I was in high school and college and I helped coach one of my sons. The distance from home plate to first base is 90 feet, or 30 yards. The distance from home plate to the pitcher’s mound is 60′-6″, or just over 20 yards.  In the field, I typically find myself comfortable setting my tripod down at around 40 yards from a bull moose for photography in he range of 200-mm to 400mm. When I was shooting with a Nikon D300, a DX body, I felt about right using a 70-200mm lens. So, as you can see in the FX image at 400mm and no Teleconverter, I am farther away than I’d prefer. Unless I spent the money for a 600mm lens for bears, I tell myself “why bother”. The other option for me would be to use my Nikon D800 in DX crop mode, knowing it starts out at 35 mpx and still makes a reasonably large DX file.

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Where to Find Wildlife in the Tetons and JH Area:

Tips for locating the area’s Mammals.

You don’t have to worry about finding the Teton range, rivers, and trees. They stay in the same spot from day to day and year to year. It’s easy to at least find them! Wildlife: That’s a different story. They move around daily—and they may move from one area of the park to another based on the seasons of the year. Some hibernate and some leave the area altogether during the Winter.

The purpose of this feature page is to identify where you might go to find the park’s mammals at different times of the year. There’s no guarantees, but it helps to have a general idea where they are seen most often. Sometimes they are bedded down, behind trees and shrubs, or under a ridge and you just can’t see them! There’s a bit of luck involved. Odds of finding wildlife go WAY UP if you are out before the sun comes up. This is probably the single most important aspect of finding them, and if you can find them, you might get a chance to photograph them. Mornings are usually better than afternoons. In the afternoon, they often get up to feed and move to the visible areas about the time the sun goes down.

Matriarch

Matriarch

Grizzly Bears:
The number of grizzly bears in the area has increased considerably over the past decade. And, their range is getting bigger! For many years, the grizzlies were most commonly seen in the Oxbow Bend area, along Pacific Creek road, and in the Willow Flats area near the dam. They also roamed north from those areas towards Colter Bay and farther. Back country grizzlies could potentially be found about anywhere. In the past years, grizzlies have been roaming farther south and there have been confirmed sightings on the National Elk Refuge as of this year. Watch for grizzlies around the Oxbow area early in the season, once they leave their winter dens. Sows with new cubs usually appear after the boars and older bears. They forage for roots, dig fish out of the edges of the river, and feed on any leftover winter kills. As the elk move back into the same areas (sometime in June), bears hang around to feed on newborn elk calves.

Many grizzlies and black bears feed on White Bark pine cones. On years with a good crop of cones, they move up in elevation to feed on them. In lean years, they stay low and look for other food sources. Berries are one of the sources, along with gut piles left by hunters. The Moose/Wilson road has a good crop of berries again in 2013, so expect that area to have some grizzlies. The Park Service traditionally closes the road if grizzlies are present close to the roads.

In 2013, the Elk Reduction Program (elk hunt) has numerous changes likely to change some of the Grizzlies’ behavior. The traditional river bottom along the Snake is closed to the hunt, but they added some areas south of the Gros Ventre river next to the National Elk Refuge. Grizzlies have been feeding on gut piles left by bison hunters on the refuge, and will likely be along the Gros Ventre River this year during the elk hunt. Grizzlies have been seen recently on the south end of Blacktail Butte. At times, grizzlies have been seen and photographed near the Mormon Row barns and along Antelope Flats road. In short, the grizzlies go where they hear shooting in the fall and feast on the gut piles left by the hunters.

Again, they are now ranging across most of the park. Numerous grizzlies are seen around Mt. Leidy and in areas around Towgotee Passl—both areas out of the actual park. Grizzlies are relatively common around the Buffalo River at the East boundary of the park.

Grizzlies hibernate in the winter, but exactly when they do so varies yearly. Some were seen in the park as late as January but most move to the den after a good blanket of snow covers the valley and mountains.

Ready for a Drink

Ready for a Drink

Black Bears:
Black bears, like Grizzlies, hibernate during the winter, so don’t expect to see them at all when there’s a heavy layer of snow. The best time of the year to find black bears is in the fall when they move to the lover areas of the park in search of berries. The best place to look will likely be along the Moose-Wilson road and on Signal Mountain. Black Hawthorne berry bushes are common along the Moose-Wilson road and Huckleberries grow on Signal Mountain. Black bears have traditionally used the areas around the dam and the Signal Mountain Lodge and campground, but grizzlies have been pushing them out of the areas in the past few years.

The good news about both species of bears: they more or less keep banker’s hours! Some might be out at first light, but most show up after the sun warms things up some. So, look for elk, deer, and moose early, then switch gears and look for bears.  They help fill the day. Some of the best photography for either species will probably be on slightly overcast or lightly cloudy days. Otherwise, bright light photography will usually result in images with a lot of contrast.  If you are only viewing them, the contrast issue is not a problem at all!

Wolves:
There are numerous packs of wolves in Grand Teton National Park. They “can be” seen just about anywhere in the park and Elk Refuge. Unlike some areas of Yellowstone, the wolves in the Tetons are not particularly easy to see and photograph. I’ve personally seen them on the Elk Refuge, along the East Boundary Road, down in the river bottom near Schwabacher Landing, on the south end of Blacktail Butte and along the Gros Ventre road, at Elk Flats, and in Willow Flats near Oxbow Bend. You might get lucky and see them about anywhere.

Mountain Lions:
A very elusive animal anywhere. They blend in with the background, hunt mostly at night, and tend to stay away from human activity. Last winter, a few were seen at the south end of Blacktail Butte and along the butte near the National Museum of Wildlife Art. They prey on mule deer, so keep an eye out for them wherever you might see mule deer.

Morning Crossing

Morning Crossing

Moose:
Wolves are reported to be taking tolls on moose in the Tetons. At one time, moose were commonly seen around Oxbow Bend and around Willow flats, but reports from friends seem to confirm there are less of them in those areas now. They are probably still there, but seen much less often. Moose can be seen along the Snake River bottoms throughout the entire length, however there aren’t many places to access those areas anymore. Schwabacher Landing has been closed to vehicle and bikes throughout the entire 2013 summer season. Moose can be seen near the bridge across the Snake River at the Moose Junction area and sometimes from the overlook at Blacktail Ponds.

Moose are often seen along the road from Wilson to Teton Village. Many have been killed by vehicles, so speed limits have been reduced to try to save as many as possible. Moose feed on resident’s trees and shrubs all winter and summer and can be found bedded down in about any yard in the zone.

Moose use the Gros Ventre river bottom all summer and into fall. That area is close to my home, so I tend to go there when I want to find moose. During August, moose bulls can be seen as they grow their velvet cover antlers and later as the antlers mature and they scrape the velvet. The area is known to be a fall rut zone. There are several viewing areas along the Gros Ventre road.

As the season progresses towards late fall and early winter, the moose move out to the sage flats north of Kelly and up the road towards the Teton Science School. By mid-December and early January, most of the bulls will shed their antlers. They stay in the sage flats feeding mainly on bitter brush until snows cover the sage flats with a deep layer. Afterwards, they move back into the river bottoms and feed on the tips of the exposed willows.

Ridgeline Bison

Ridgeline Bison

Bison:
Many people still refer to them as “Buffalo”. Numbers of bison are up now, so the National Elk Refuge allows hunting for them on the refuge. Special permits are required. The bison have learned to stay off the refuge during the hunt. Bison are usually “confined” to the sage flats, which runs most of the length of the valley floor. That’s the norm, but they also drop down into the river bottoms, especially around Triangle X Ranch and Moosehead Ranch. Many people seem to think of them as cattle, but bison can be extremely dangerous. I never get very far from my truck when viewing and photographing them.

You can usually find bison along the Gros Ventre Road, around the town of Kelly, along Mormon Row and along Antelope Flats Road. Watch for them at Elk Flats farther north. Bison usually move from place to place in herds. They’ll often be in the same general area the next day, but seldom the same place. They usually go to water at least once each day. Along the Gros Ventre road, there are a couple of irrigation ditches and a spring creek. Out in the sage flats, bison move to Ditch Creek or one of the active irrigation ditches in the sagebrush.

December Elk

December Elk

Elk:
The best time to see elk in Jackson Hole is during the winter! About 10,000 of them migrate to the National Elk Refuge and winter in plain sight, sometimes close to the road. Sleigh rides take people out on horse drawn sleighs with elk leisurely feeding only yards away. During the rest of the year, it’s a completely different story!
Elk in this region are subject to being hunted, and until they are safely within the boundaries of the refuge, they are extremely elusive. In fact, elk are hunted within the Park. They are the only animal species subject to being killed by the public within the park boundaries. The Elk Reduction Program, often called the Elk Hunt, happens each fall as the elk try to migrate to the refuge. The hunt is limited to only certain areas of the park, but in 2013, a new section has been added south of the Gros Ventre road and north of the Gros Ventre river. Click Here to see the current specs for the hunt including warnings for tourists, photographers, and fishermen in the hunt areas.

Beginning the Migration

Beginning the Migration

Elk typically move out to the edges of the sagebrush and grassy areas overnight to feed, but move back into the forests about the time the first glow of light appears. They seldom stay out in the open once light hits the valley floor. So, if you want to see elk, get up very early and be out before the sun comes up. They are difficult to photograph as a result of the low light conditions.

In the fall, bull elk begin to gather cows into a harem for the rut. Fights to gain dominance can happen if you are lucky enough to witness them. Some of the best viewing areas for elk are along the Teton Park Road, also known as the Inner Park Loop road by many locals. Elk often hang out near the ridges along the Moose-Wilson Road and near the Chapel of the Transfiguration. Many people go to the Windy Point pullout just north of the Chapel. Several groups of elk hang out near Timbered Island across from Lupine Meadows. Lupine Meadows is also a great place to view and listen to elk bugle in the fall. Bulls with large harems of cows have been seen recently in 2013 near String Lake and Jenny Lake, mostly near the roads. Be there early, or possibly late in the day.

Also, check out this Feature Post: Sleigh Ride on the National Elk Refuge:

Pair of Buddies

Pair of Buddies

Mule Deer:
Watch for the trademark large ears and the black tip on the end of their tails. Mule deer mostly inhabit river bottoms and forests, but can also be found in sage flats on occasions. During the fall rut, deer can be found in some of the residential areas south and west of the airport regularly. But, of course, they can be just about anywhere along the entire length of the Buffalo River, Snake River, and Pacific Creek.

After the rut, some of them move towards the small town of Kelly. Others winter on the side of the butte west of the National Elk Refuge and into the town of Jackson. In recent years, mule deer were common south of town and along the Hoback River drainage. I don’t see the large herds nearly as often anymore for some reason. Mule deer bucks shed their antlers later than some of the other ungulates.

Whitetail Deer:
Not commonly seen, Whitetails can be found if you are lucky. I’ve seen them a few times near the Buffalo River and along the Gros Ventre river.

Pronghorn in Summer Grass

Pronghorn in Summer Grass

Pronghorns:
Often called Antelope, Pronghorns are often seen in the summer in the Teton Valley. Most migrate out of the valley in the late fall after the rut. A few have been seen here in the Winter over the past few years, mostly around the town of Kelly. The best places to see Antelope are along the Gros Ventre road from the highway to Kelly, along Mormon Row, and along Antelope Flats road. Pronghorns are also seen mixed in with bison and elk near Elk Flats and along the Teton Park road in the areas along Lupine Meadows. Antelope are some of the last mammals to go into the rut.

Headache

Headache

Bighorn Sheep:
Bighorns are reported to hang around on the slopes in some of the lesser traveled areas near Mt. Moran. I’ve never actually seen one in the park. Instead, most Bighorns are photographed on Miller Butte on the National Elk Refuge. They start showing up sometime after Thanksgiving and hang around until spring. I’ve counted upwards of 60 Bighorns on the refuge. The rams leave long before the last of the rest of the ewes and lambs. Additional Bighorns can be seen and photographed on the rocks near the campground at Slide Lake. In the summer, Bighorns can sometimes be seen farther out the Gros Ventre near Red Rock Ranch.

Careful Traverse

Careful Traverse

Mountain Goats:
The best time to see Mountain Goats is the span between late January and early April in the Snake River Canyon south of Jackson and close to Alpine Junction. They were introduced into the area for sport hunting and have been doing very well. Mountain Goats will occasionally graze on grass, leaves, branches and about anything but rocks all the way down to the road. During this time of the year, the goats always have their full, beautiful coats. The goats are usually visible at some time of the day each day, but I’ve been shut out numerous times. And, if you do go down in the winter, be forewarned, it can be brutally cold in the canyon, especially with the winter winds whipping.

Occasionally, a few of the Goats roam up into the Tetons, causing the officials there to go into a tizzy, worrying about them crowding out the native bighorns.

Also check out this more detailed post on Mountain Goats: Mountain Goats of the Snake River Canyon:

Spring's Red Fox

Spring’s Red Fox

Critters:
Coyotes and foxes can be seen around the valley most of the year. Foxes are usually common in the Wilson area, but I’ve seen foxes off and on all over. Coyotes are seen regularly on the Elk Refuge and in the sage flats. Keep an eye out for Badgers in the sage about anywhere. You can find Chipmonks, Ground Squirrels, Rabbits, and so forth just about all over. River Otter can occasionally be seen in Flat Creek, along the Gros Ventre, and around Oxbow Bend. Beavers build dams in side channels and are usually seen only in the early mornings or late evenings.