Seasons of Wildlife

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The most commonly asked question in the summer is “Where are all the elk?” The National Elk Refuge was established to provide winter habitat for the Jackson Elk Herd. However, it doesn’t mean there “isn’t anything to see” the rest of the year when the charismatic elk herd leaves for its summer range.


  • Winter

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    In the winter, thousands of elk on the National Elk Refuge feed on native vegetation and, when necessary, on alfalfa pellets provided by the Refuge staff. Every year on the Refuge, some of the weak, the ill, and the old elk die, becoming food for coyotes, wolves, eagles, ravens, and magpies. Moose, bighorn sheep, bison, and mule deer are common winter residents. Bighorn sheep can frequently be seen on Miller Butte.

    Winter presents an excellent opportunity to view wildlife on the Refuge, but it's also a stressful time of year for them. For their protection, please observe all regulations and guidance offered on our Winter Wildlife Viewing link.

  • Spring

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    Soon after bull elk shed their antlers in March and April, their new velveted antler growth begins. During April and May, elk begin drifting from the Refuge, following the receding snowline toward their summer ranges in the high country. Calves are born in protected areas along the migration route in late May and June. 

    As elk migrate to their summer range, birds flock to the Refuge during spring migration. Waterfowl commonly seen on ponds and in marshes include mallards, northern pintails, gadwalls, Barrow’s golden-eyes, buffleheads, green-winged and cinnamon teals, and Canada geese. For a birding highlight, look for trumpeter swans at Flat Creek Marsh along US Highway 26 north of the Visitor Center.

  • Summer

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    In the summer, marsh edges attract songbirds, such as marsh wrens, yellow-headed blackbirds, and common yellowthroats. Open ponds and meadows support ducks, geese, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, long-billed curlews, and great blue herons. 

    Moose can occasionally be spotted on or near the Refuge.

    The Refuge's wintering elk have moved to mountain meadows and forests, which offer abundant food and escape from the warmer temperatures. Last year’s coats are replaced by sleek, reddish hair. Bulls’ antlers reach their full growth in August.

  • Fall

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    September and October is the breeding season for elk. Bulls' “bugling” calls fill the air at dawn and dusk. Bulls clash antlers with challengers while gathering and guarding harems of cows. From October through December, deepening snows push the elk down from their higher summer ranges to seek food at lower elevations. Elk frequently move onto and off the Refuge during the transitional autumn months. The National Elk Refuge begins to see a more stable wintering population by mid-December

    Migrating birds pass through on their way to wintering areas farther south.