An anomaly—or the new norm?
This year, a herd of around 40 Bison are wintering inside Grand Teton National Park instead of moving south onto the National Elk Refuge. I’ve lived in Jackson Hole for over 32 years and don’t recall still seeing Bison in Grand Teton National Park in March. This appears to be a learned behavior. After 12 years of the Bison Hunt on the National Elk Refuge, some of them are finding they are safer staying north of the Gros Ventre River.
On opening day of the Bison Hunt years ago, I was standing one one of the overlooks along the Gros Ventre. This was early in the morning and I was looking for Moose in the area. I heard gun shots on the Refuge, then watched as a herd of Bison blasted across the Gros Ventre River at break neck speed. It would have been fantastic photography—with water splashing everywhere and the animals in a panic. The next year, I was dutifully set up along the river on opening day (well out of the way). I waited and waited. Nothing! No gun shots and no Bison, even though the highway was lined with hunter’s horse trailers and plenty of hunters on the Refuge ready to blast them.
Bison are apparently quick learners.
I found this online 2007 article: Bison Hunt Begins in the National Elk Refuge. A recent article in the Jackson Hole News & Guide documents how a remnant herd herd of Bison were being pushed from the north part of Grand Teton National Park down the highway to the southern zone: Bison Learn to Avoid Hunters. The article has a graph showing how the bison herds are delaying their migration south until later and later each year. Here’s a quote from the article:
“Going back a dozen years, Game and Fish records show the first bison movements south onto the Elk Refuge came in September and October. In the 2012 through 2016 timespan, a December arrival was much more likely. For the last two years the migration has been put off until the middle of January, at the earliest. …Jackson Hole’s wild bison are now essentially arriving into the area where they can be hunted when the hunt is ending.”
A mid-sized herd of Bison opted to stay in the Elk Ranch Flats area this year. As described in the JH News and Guide story, several agencies worked together to push them south. Highway 89/191 was closed most of one day and part of another during this move. This photo shows the Park Service removing the snow from Antelope Flats Road. They created a path from the Highway to the East Boundary Road. The Bison used the open road to make their way to the Kelly Warm Springs.
The Bison rut usually occurs in August. For many years, you would see Bison in the grassy pastures and sage flats north of the Gros Ventre, around Kelly, and along Mormon Row. In recent years, more of them are moving and staying at Elk Ranch for much of the summer—as seen in this photo from last September. Back when we could still drive the river road on the west side of the Snake, you could find large numbers along the river bottoms and in the sage covered zones. Bison are generally less common in large numbers in the southern portion of the Park anymore. That’s my experience anyway, and the News and Guide article supports it.
Okay, as a photographer, I am not complaining about having an additional winter subject! The group of 40 are offering some unique photo opportunities this year. Normally, we’d have to go to Yellowstone and take a snow coach or guided snowmobile tour to see them by the steamy geysers. This year, frosted Bison are only 18 or so miles from downtown Jackson at the Kelly Warm Springs. My first photos of the Bison at the Kelly Warm Springs were taken on March 1st.
When they first appeared, I had expected them to be at the Warm Springs for a day or two and then move on. Some did, but the 35-40 have been hanging around.
These two Bison were sleeping next to the Warm Springs. That morning, a light breeze was pushing the steam across them. Others, farther from the bank, were unfrosted.
If you are hoping to get photos of Bison with frosted fur, and don’t want to go to Yellowstone, I’d suggest getting to the Kelly Warm Springs very early on a cold morning. The frost melts quickly once the sun hits their fur.
This cow was frosted only on one side. Each day is different!
On a still morning, steam from the Warm Springs creates a layer of fog around the zone. It’s definitely a “different” look at a relatively common subject!
As the early morning golden light hits the area, watch for rim lighting and back lighting. Conditions change quickly.
There were a few bulls at the Kelly Warm Springs early in March, but from what I can tell, the remaining Bison are cows and calves.
This calf was likely born in June or July. By this time of the year, they are relatively independent, but stay with the herd.
Seeing a frosted Bison like this one might make you think they are miserable, but their thick fur insulates them. They’ll often shake off some of the frost once they stand up, but the morning sun does the bulk of the job.
You’ll often see Bulls rolling in the dirt in the summer but they will occasionally roll in the snow. They spend most of their time foraging for food, however.
Bison use their head, strong shoulders, and neck to brush away snow to get to the grass. They will often have a layer of snow on their face, even if they are not otherwise frosted.
As March of 2019 has progresses, the herd is venturing farther out from the Springs. Most of what happens is similar to watching paint dry. There isn’t much action and it seem all they do is eat. I am always watching for something unique.
The Bison are eating mostly grass they expose from under the snow, but they also munch on the willows around the pond.
The Kelly Warm Springs pool isn’t very deep at its deepest point. I seldom see them standing in it but occasionally one or two cross it.
The hill on the north side of the Kelly Warm Springs is now offering some additional food sources. I always watch for an animal on an incline…it’s much more dynamic!
Some of the initial herd moved down the road and across the Gros Ventre, leaving the 40 that seems to be content to hang around the springs. This year’s deep snow definitely slowed them down!
While in the Kelly area in March, watch for Foxes, Sage Grouse, Coyotes, and Bald Eagles. The area is also known to have Badgers. As the month progresses, keep an eye out for Mountain Bluebirds. Trumpeter Swans, Common Mergansers, and a variety of Ducks also find the warm waters. As Elk migrate off the National Elk Refuge, Wolves may be visible for a few lucky photographers. As I mentioned earlier, seeing Bison in the Park at this time of the year is very unusual. By this time, most of them will have moved to the northern section of the Elk Refuge—out of view for the rest of the Winter season. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t expect Bison to be at the Springs next winter, but I could be wrong. As they say, “You have to get ’em while the gettin’s good!”
If you are not going to my March 2019 Daily Journal for GTNP & JH , you should! It already has 16 days of photos and comments!