Winter Wildlife Viewing


Winter presents an excellent opportunity to view wildlife on the Refuge, but it is also a stressful time of year for wildlife. For the protection of wildlife, habitat, and other visitors, some regulations and guidance are offered below.

Keeping a safe distance from wildlife is as much about the animal's welfare as it is about yours. Getting too close to wildlife -- or allowing wildlife to approach to close to you -- can put you and the animals in danger. While the National Elk Refuge welcomes wildlife watchers to enjoy the viewing opportunities here, it also remains committed to the protection and preservation of nature and wildlife.

Winter presents an excellent opportunity to view wildlife on the Refuge, but it is also a stressful time of year for wildlife. Their survival is dependent upon conserving their energy. Wildlife may not display visible signs of stress that indicate they are being affected by human interactions, but repeated disturbances from the presence of humans can significantly impact their overall health and survival. 

To decrease stress to wildlife, please keep a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from wintering elk. Wildlife should never be surrounded or cut off from their direction of travel. As crowds gather, wildlife can quickly feel threatened and, in their panic, harm people. Always allow wildlife a clear escape route if they want to leave the area.

The popularity of selfies and capturing any moment through photographs or video can be a threat to wildlife and humans. Visitors on a quest for the perfect photo may start to provoke animals, and in some instances, alter their behaviors as a result. Please give careful consideration to posting images on social media that make light of any harmful practices. Including a caption that indicates you used a longer lens or zoon feature lets others know of your commitment to wildlife viewing ethics.


Viewing Wildlife from North Highway 26 / 89

North Highway 26/89 runs along the western boundary of the National Elk Refuge, offering excellent views of wintering elk.

  • Several pullouts are located along the highway, providing safe opportunities to observe elk. 
  • Stopping a vehicle or parking on the shoulder of the highway is discouraged because of safety considerations on the busy road.
  • To reduce disturbance to migrating and wintering elk and other wildlife, the North Highway 89 Pathway that runs parallel to the highway from Flat Creek to the Gros Ventre River is closed from November 1 to April 30.
  • Crossing the pathway and approaching the Refuge fence to take photographs or view wildlife violates the closure and its purpose. The presence of humans at or near the fence causes nearby elk to bolt and leave the area. Continual disturbance throughout the winter can have a cumulative effect on the elk, adding to their weakened condition brought about by the rigors of the long season.

Viewing Wildlife from the Refuge Road  

Elk, bighorn sheep, and other wildlife are frequently seen close to the Refuge Road. To accommodate the number of visitors on this road and protect wintering animals, the following regulations are in place.

  • The speed limit on the Refuge Road is 30 mph. Travel speeds should be adjusted to accommodate for winter driving conditions that may include ice, fog, drifting snow, and limited visibility.
  • Vehicles should use an established pullout when viewing wildlife in order to keep the Refuge Road open to moving traffic. This road is also used by large vehicles including delivery trucks, service vehicles, snow plows, and Refuge equipment which cannot easily maneuver around vehicles stopped in the road.
  • Drivers must not stop in the road when other vehicles are present. When traffic is approaching in either direction, vehicles must continue moving or use an established pullout to keep the road clear.
  • Road shoulders drop off dramatically. Please use caution as ditches and uneven surfaces may be hidden by snow.
  • Off-road travel by vehicle or on foot is prohibited.
  • Spotting scopes and tripods should not be set up in the road.
  • Visitors traveling on the Refuge Road should watch for and respect all posted road closures and restricted routes. Some roads or driveways may be open for administrative traffic only or for permitted hunters accessing hunt areas during designated periods.
Bighorn sheep are frequently seen on or near the Refuge Road.

While the Refuge Road offers spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities, the increased use on the road can have a considerable negative impact on the bighorn sheep population and is a concern to wildlife managers. Visitors on the Refuge Road can play an important role in protection of the species. Some important considerations about viewing bighorn sheep on the Refuge Road can be viewed here.

A printable version of our Winter Wildlife Viewing Guide, including a map, can be downloaded here (Adobe PDF).