Seasons of Wildlife

Elk Herd in Winter

The seasonal changes on the Refuge are dramatic and unmistakable, much like the wildlife that emerge and thrive during the particular seasons. 

  • Winter


    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


    Soon after bull elk shed their antlers in March and April, their new velveted antler growth begins. During April and May, elk begin migrating off of the Refuge towards their summer ranges. The majority of elk will follow the receding snow line up to higher elevations in Grand Teton National Park and in the Teton Wilderness in the Bridger Teton National Forest. Females will give birth to their calves in May and June during their migration to higher elevations.

    As elk are leaving their wintering grounds on the National Elk Refuge in early spring, migratory birds flock to the ponds, marshes, and grasslands on the Refuge. Waterfowl commonly seen on ponds and in marshes include mallards, northern shovelers, northern pintails, gadwalls, Barrow’s golden-eyes, buffleheads, green-winged and cinnamon teals, and Canada geese. Sandhill cranes and long-billed curlews can occasionally be seen in the grassland habitat throughout the Refuge. For a birding highlight, look for trumpeter swans at Flat Creek Marsh along US Highway 26 north of the Visitor Center.

  • Summer


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

    Pronghorn and badgers can often be seen when traveling along the Refuge Road. 

    During the summer you are unlikely to see elk on the Refuge. Most of the herd 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


    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.