Winter has Arrived in Jackson Hole. After an abnormally dry and warm Late November and most of December, snow is falling, just in time for the New Year. We’ve been out observing wildlife respond to the changing conditions. December marks a descent into a long cold winter, creating unique challenges and opportunities for our wildlife.
Some animals, like black and grizzly bears, ground squirrels and other rodents, are now slumbering, waiting for the bounty of spring to come. Two thirds of our bird species have migrated out of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, traveling as far away as South America. Others have migrated into the ecosystem, finding refuge in places like the Jackson Hole Valley, and Yellowstone Plateau. The great large mammal migrations which sustain Yellowstone are in motion, as snow covers up forage in the high country, forcing animals down into the valleys.
Moose Concentrate in the Jackson Hole Valley
This year, December started off dry, with snow from earlier storms in the Jackson Hole valley actually melting away. Moose, sometimes numbering in groups of over 20 animals, have become a frequent sight on Antelope Flats in Grand Teton National Park. Bull moose have been sparring frequently, and are starting to shed antlers grown in the past year.
Cow moose are also showing signs of dominance, challenging each other with aggressive displays and even rearing up on hind legs. Usually solitary, we generally only see concentrations of moose like this in the winter months. The close quarters may help explain the apparent increase in territorial responses.
With ears flat, two cow moose challenge each other, eventually rearing up on hind legs.
Rutting Bighorn Sheep
Though the moose rut ended earlier in the fall, bighorn sheep have been actively displaying mating behavior on the National Elk Refuge throughout December. The Gros Ventre herd migrates to the valley floor each year, retreating from deep snow in the mountains to the east. With females approaching estrus, or receptivity to mating, male bighorn have been engaging in headbutting competitions, colliding head first at 20mph! It’s a battle of stamina, whoever can put up with the most abuse will mate with around 40% of the female herd.
Two bighorn rams exhibit the flehmen response, checking to see if the nearby female is in estrus. Visit our Facebook Page to see a video from the same day of rams butting heads!
Elk Slowly Arrive on the National Elk Refuge
A lack of snow in the valley has delayed the elk migration onto the National Elk Refuge. Though some bachelor bull herds and a few cow elk are being observed on the refuge, large herds of elk remain in Grand Teton National Park, and in the Gros Ventre Mountains to the East. Recent snowfall should get elk moving onto the refuge where upwards of 9000 may congregate for the winter.
This bull elk, recently viewed on the National Elk Refuge, looks infected with scabies, a tiny mite which causes irritation and hair loss. Scabies can contribute to bull mortality, especially in winter months
Wolves Return to the Jackson Hole Valley
We've been seeing the tracks of wolves on tours all month long and finally had a sighting on Christmas Eve. Guide Chelse Wren was out in Grand Teton National Park observing a herd of several hundred elk who started running. Chasing behind them were several wolves who eventually brought one of the elk down! Check out the video below Chelse took through our Maven Spotting Scope to see the action!
Waterfowl Flock to Jackson Hole
Waterfowl are taking full advantage of the open water along Flat Creek in the National Elk Refuge. Groups of 30-50 trumpeter swans, the world’s largest waterfowl have come to Jackson Hole from as far away as Canada. Recent tours have yielded barrows and common goldeneye, pintail, gadwall, bufflehead, and hooded mergansers as well!
Known as serial monogamists, trumpeter swans will often remain with the same partner for their entire lives!
Small Mammal Observations
We’ve recently had some great fox sightings, including one hunting mammals beneath the snow. Foxes become more visible in winter, their bright orange coats contrasting against the white snow. Ever on the move, foxes listen intently for rodents scurrying about beneath the snow. When one is located, the fox will cock its head, rear back on hind legs, then leap into the air, diving head first into the snow.
We observed this red fox catch a small rodent from beneath the snow on a recent wildlife tour.
Tracks in the Snow
Our Ski and Snowshoe Tours, new for this winter season, have provided ample opportunities to study the track and sign wildlife leave behind. Guide Verlin Carlton followed wolf tracks with guests on a snowshoe tour on Emma Matilda Lake last week. We were delighted to find a family of Trumpeter Swans on the aptly named Swan Lake in Northern Grand Teton National Park. And though they are now slumbering, we recently found black bear claw marks climbing their way to the top of an aspen tree. Find out how to join us for an “off the beaten path” ski or snowshoe experience in Grand Teton National Park here.
Ski and Snowshoe trips in Grand Teton National Park are a chance to step into the winter wonderland of Jackson Hole.
Ringing in the New Year
Though we have already passed the winter solstice and days are slowly getting longer, winter’s grasp has just begun. The next three months are a battle for life, as wildlife attempt to survive the big chill. In mid January we head to Yellowstone for a 6 day multi day tour, exploring the winter wonderland of steaming geyser basins, dramatic ice filled canyons, and howling wolf packs of the Lamar Valley.
In the Jackson Hole Valley we will be tracking wildlife and exploring the scenic vistas of Grand Teton National Park on ski and snowshoe. All tours are 10% off through January 31st, 2018 when you use the code “Winter18” online. Better yet, get 15% off a trip for three or more people through January 15th when you book over the phone! Discounts cannot be used together, call us 307-690-9533 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.