Yellowstone National Park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. While many people come to the park to see the geysers and other geological features, the wildlife of Yellowstone is also a big draw, and lucky for you, visitors of West Yellowstone can view the wildlife without the crowds of YNP and see grizzlies, wolves, and other animals up close, and year-round at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.
With over 400 miles of trails, West Yellowstone is home to a diverse range of wildlife species including grizzly bears, wolves, bison, elk, and more. Keep reading to learn more about the animals you can find here as well as how to spot them!
Best Time of Year to See Wildlife in Yellowstone
The best time of year to see wildlife in Yellowstone is spring, particularly in May and early June. This is when bears come out of hibernation and bison, moose, and deer calves are born. During this time, wolf packs can be seen hunting and grizzly bear sightings are more common.
On the other hand, summers can be less ideal for spotting, as animals tend to migrate to higher elevations to retreat from the heat. However, beginning in the fall, the rut marks the end of summer and males fight for breeding rights and elk bulls can be observed.
Winter is also a great time to see bison and elk, while the Lamar Valley wolves are especially visible in the snow.
Wildlife watching in Yellowstone is best done in the cooler early morning and evening hours. Packing binoculars or spotting scopes is recommended, as you shouldn’t get too close to the wildlife. Stay at least 25 yards away from bison, elk, and other wildlife, and 100 yards away from bears and wolves.
Mammals of Yellowstone
Both grizzly and black bears can be found in Yellowstone. It’s easy to spot the difference between the two as grizzly bears are larger than black bears and have a distinctive hump of muscle on their shoulders used for digging. Grizzly bears also have more rounded ears and dish-shaped faces.
In comparison, black bears have a longer snout, a straighter line between the forehead and nose, and ears that are more pointed.
Grizzlies are more prominently found in the Hayden and Lamar Valleys and at Mt. Washburn while black bears tend to inhabit the Tower and Mammoth areas. Bears have curved claws that allow them to climb trees and are excellent swimmers. They are powerful animals and can be dangerous if they feel threatened, especially if they have cubs with them.
American bison, also known as buffalo, are the largest grazing mammals in Yellowstone. They are obligate herbivores, meaning they adapted to graze on grasslands and sedges found in meadows, foothills, and forested plateaus.
Adult bison males, called bulls, can weigh up to 1,800 pounds, while females (cows) average about 1,300 pounds. Both stand about six feet tall at the shoulder and can move with surprising speed when threatened or when approached.
Bison breed from mid-July to mid-August and can bear one calf in April and May. They have an average lifespan of 20-25 years in the wild. Bison are nomadic grazers, wandering high on Yellowstone’s grassy plateaus in summer, and in winter, they use their large heads to push aside snow and find food.
FAQ: What’s the difference between bison vs buffalo?
Bison are actually a subspecies of buffalo, but the two animals are often confused. The main difference between bison and buffalo is that bison are native to North America while buffalo are found in Africa and Asia. Bison are also larger than buffalo.
Coyotes (Canis latrans) are intelligent and agile animals that are abundant in Yellowstone National Park. They typically weigh around 30 pounds and can live for up to 6 years. Coyotes are quite vocal and are most frequently heard at dusk and dawn. They can be found in grasslands, meadows, and fields.
Coyotes are opportunistic predators, typically hunting small mammals such as rodents, but they can also be capable of killing larger prey when in a pack. As seen in Yellowstone, the reintroduction of wolves has caused a decrease in coyote populations as they compete with the larger canid.
Coyotes can also become acclimated to human presence and food, leading to potential danger for both humans and coyotes.
Wolves are highly social animals that live in packs and communicate through barks, whines, growls, and howls. They typically travel in packs of ten and care for their pups until they can hunt on their own, which is typically around 10 months.
Yellowstone is home to nearly 100 wolves, the largest packs being the Slough Creek, Yellowstone Delta, and Leopold packs. Wolves are native to Yellowstone and were reintroduced to the park in 1995.
They mainly hunt elk but have had to re-learn how to hunt bison due to their size. Wolves in Yellowstone can live up to 10 years in the wild but typically live between 6 and 8 years.
Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) are large, hoofed mammals found mainly in small, fragmented populations across the Rocky Mountains. They are named for the large, curved horns found on the males, which can weigh up to 30 pounds.
Bighorn sheep are social animals and live in herds. In the fall, males compete for females by head-butting. Lambs (baby bighorn sheep) can walk and climb within a day of being born.
Bighorn sheep were an important food source for humans in the past, but their numbers have been reduced due to hunting and disease. They typically live 10–15 years in the wild.
Elk, or wapiti (Cervus canadensis), are the most abundant large mammal found in Yellowstone and have been present for at least 1,000 years. They are the second largest member of the Cervidae family, closely related to both deer and moose, (moose are the largest) and have a reddish-brown coat with a heavy, darker-colored mane and a distinct yellowish rump patch.
Adult males, or bulls, can weigh upwards of 700 pounds. while females, or cows, average 500-525 pounds. Bulls grow antlers annually from the time they are nearly one year old, which may have 6 to 8 points or tines on each side and weigh more than 30 pounds.
During the fall mating season or rut, bulls may gather 20-30 cows in their harem and lock antlers with another mature male to dominate the herding group.
Calves weighing 25-40 pounds are usually born in late May or early June. Elk usually live about 15 years in the wild and their antlers are usually shed in March or April, and begin regrowing in May.
Moose are the largest and tallest member of the Cervidae family, weighing in at about 1300-1700 pounds. They have a flap of skin hanging from their throats called a bell and their nostrils can close when they dip their heads underwater.
Moose are better adapted to survival in deep snow than other regional ungulates, and they have incredibly long legs which allow them to wade in rivers and deep snow, as well as run fast.
They feed on an average of 26 pounds of food per day and are commonly found in marshy areas, meadows, along bodies of water, and in riparian zones. In the winter, their fur turns white to better camouflage with their surroundings.
They are solitary creatures, except during breeding and raising their young, and they typically hang out alone or in very small family groups.
Wild Cats of Yellowstone
There are three basic types of wild cats that live in Yellowstone: the lynx, the bobcat, and the cougar.
The lynx is a shy creature that lives in forests and dense brush. It has long legs and large feet with fur between its toes, which helps it move through deep snow. The lynx is nocturnal and feeds on rabbits and other small animals.
Bobcats are roughly twice the size of house cats and are common throughout the country. These cats are solitary, nocturnal hunters known for their vocalizations, including loud howls, growls, and hisses. The bobcat’s diet consists mainly of small mammals, such as rabbits, mice, and squirrels, as well as birds and reptiles.
The mountain lion, also known as cougar or puma, is the largest member of the cat family living in the United States and can weigh up to 200 pounds. Cougars prefer rocky terrain and wooded areas where they can quickly escape their competition.
The beaver is a keystone species that plays an important role in creating and maintaining habitats. They are crepuscular, being active in the morning and evening hours, and feed on willow, aspen, and cottonwood, or underwater plants like pond lilies in areas lacking those species.
The beaver lives in family groups, known as colonies, which is a behavior that is uncommon amongst mammals. Beavers construct dens and dams with wood and prefer to live near rivers and streams.
The deer family consists of mule deer and white-tailed deer. Both are characterized by their hooves and antlers, depending on the species and gender, and have an average lifespan of 10 to 15 years in the wild.
Mule deer are the most common in Yellowstone and are found in forests, grasslands, and shrublands. White-tailed deer are more common in the central and northern Great Plains, and in mixed deciduous riparian corridors, river valley bottomlands, and lower foothills of the northern Rocky Mountain regions from Wyoming to southeastern British Columbia.
Birds of Yellowstone
Bald eagles can be found in the Hayden Valley and Madison River areas, and Yellowstone Lake in the summer months. They have gray and rusty brown feathers, plus a distinctive red patch on their forehead. They are the tallest birds in the park, standing about 4 feet high. They can be seen foraging in open grassland areas.
They migrate to Yellowstone in the spring and leave in the fall. They are not picky eaters and will eat fish, small birds, rodents, and even dead animals. They build large nests out of sticks in trees or on pinnacles close to the water and lay two to three eggs from May to June. Fledglings have a speckled appearance due to light edges on each dark feather on their backs and upper wings.
The osprey migrates to Yellowstone in the spring to hunt fish and make their nests. They build stick nests in trees or pinnacles close to the water and lay two to three eggs in May or June. The eggs hatch after a few weeks, and the young ospreys, or fledglings, have light edges on each dark feather on their backs and upper wings, giving them a speckled appearance.
They learn to fly and hunt on their own throughout the summer and fall months. As fall returns, the ospreys begin their journey south to warmer climates. In the spring, they return to Yellowstone to start the cycle all over again.
Mountain chickadees are common songbirds in the mountains of western North America, ranging from southern Arizona and New Mexico up to the Yukon of Canada. They communicate with many different calls, including the famous “chick-a-dee, dee, dee”. These tough birds can survive the winter in Yellowstone, where they cache or hide food to eat. They are small birds with brown, grey, and white feathers.
In the summer, they can often be heard singing a sweet, trilling song. They are also very social birds, often forming flocks with other small birds. During the winter, they become less responsive to human activity, but will still communicate with their distinctive call. They are omnivorous, feeding on plants, insects, and small fruits. They also have strong wings that allow them to make quick flights from tree to tree.
The sandhill crane is a large bird that stands about 4 feet high, with gray and rusty brown feathers and a distinctive red patch on its forehead. They make a distinctive, guttural call and can often be seen foraging in open grassland areas.
They are found in Yellowstone National Park each summer, where they nest and can be seen in large numbers. They are expert foragers, typically feeding on small insects, amphibians, and plant matter. Their large wingspan allows them to fly long distances for migration, which is typically done in pairs. They are also known to be social and can occasionally be seen in large flocks of hundreds of birds.
Where to See Wildlife in Yellowstone
The Tower-Roosevelt Area
The Tower-Roosevelt area of Yellowstone National Park is in the northeastern corner of the park, less than an hour from West Yellowstone, and is just down the road from Lamar Valley. This area is characterized by sheer cliffs, rock formations, and steep, columnar basalt cliffs which make it the ideal habitat for sure-footed mammals like bighorn sheep and deer.
Birdwatchers will also love this area as it is home to a variety of birds of prey such as osprey, falcons, and hawks. Other wildlife to look out for includes black and grizzly bears, wolves, bison, elk, and more.
A Hayden Valley wildlife tour includes a variety of unique wildlife sightings, including bison, elk, deer, bears, wolves, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, moose, and more. The vast herds of bison and elk often graze in the valley, while pronghorn skip through the marshy grasslands. Moose can be occasionally seen in riparian areas and black and grizzly bears are often spotted in the area. Wolves roam the Hayden Valley too, making it an ideal spot to view these remarkable predators.
Hayden Valley is approximately an hour and 30 minutes from West Yellowstone and visitors should arrive in the early morning or late evening for the best chances to see the animals. The Fishing Bridge is also nearby, a great spot for picnicking and bird watching. Visitors can be assured of an unforgettable wildlife experience amidst the magnificent beauty of Yellowstone National Park.
Lamar Valley is a magnificent wildlife paradise located in the Northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park, 2 hours from West Yellowstone. It is renowned for being one of the best places in the world to view iconic Yellowstone mammals, earning it the nickname “America’s Serengeti” for the abundance of megafauna it supports.
Home to over 15 different species of wildlife, Lamar Valley is especially known for its large herds of bison, elk, and pronghorn, as well as black and grizzly bears and a variety of predators such as wolves, coyotes, red foxes, mountain lions, and bobcats.’Home to over 15 different species of wildlife, Lamar Valley is especially known for its large herds of bison, elk, and pronghorn, as well as black and grizzly bears and a variety of predators such as wolves, coyotes, red foxes, mountain lions, and bobcats.
Furthermore, the valley is accessible year-round and provides breathtaking views of its grasslands and ephemeral pools. For these reasons, Lamar Valley is a popular destination for wildlife tours in Yellowstone.
The geyser basins of Yellowstone National Park are worth a visit for their unique geothermal features and the opportunities they present to observe wildlife. Many of the 10,000 geothermal features in the park are in five major geyser basins: Mammoth Hot Springs, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, Norris Geyser Basin, and Upper Geyser Basin.
The hydrothermal basins at and around Old Faithful are particularly important, serving as overwintering habitats for bison and elk during the cold winter months. Visitors to Old Faithful can also spot osprey and, in spring, black and grizzly bears. Other geyser basins worth checking out include Biscuit Basin, Boiling River Hot Springs, and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, each offering stunning geology and a chance to observe wildlife.
Frequently Asked Questions about Yellowstone’s Wildlife
Which Part of Yellowstone Has the Most Wildlife?
The most wildlife-rich part of Yellowstone National Park is undoubtedly Lamar Valley. With its wide-open meadows and vast grasslands, it is the perfect habitat for bison, elk, bears, moose, wolves, bighorn sheep, and many other species of animals. It is also home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the park and is the best place to witness some of the continent’s megafauna in their natural habitat.
Best Time to Visit Yellowstone for Wildlife?
The best time to visit Yellowstone for wildlife depends on your interests. Spring (late April to early June) is ideal for spotting cute and playful babies like bison calves, fox kits, and bear cubs.
Late September through early October is the best window for hearing the haunting bugle of a bull elk or observing bull elks firsthand. Winter is an excellent time to spot wildlife against the white landscape and to see wolves on the hunt.
Wildlife is most active at dawn and dusk when they come out to feed, so those are the best times to spot them.
Gear for Wildlife Viewing in Yellowstone?
To safely watch wildlife in Yellowstone, it is essential to bring bear spray, which should be carried at all times and used with caution. Binoculars and spotting scopes are also useful for both hiking and roadside viewing, as they provide a powerful view of the landscape.
For taking amazing wildlife photos, a telephoto lens of at least 400mm is recommended. When exploring the park and its wildlife, visitors should also take tours, check out the best locations for viewing animals, and research the time of year they plan to visit to ensure they are most likely to see the animals they are hoping to encounter.
Lastly, it is important to remember the mandatory distance rules (100 yards for bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards for bison, elk, and other wildlife) and to never approach a wild animal.
Safety for Wildlife Viewing?
When viewing wildlife in Yellowstone, it is important to take safety precautions to protect both yourself and the animals. Always remain at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards away from bison, elk, and all other animals, including birds.
If an animal approaches you, back away slowly to keep a safe distance. It is also best to hike with at least three other people and to carry bear spray when hiking in bear country.
Additionally, when watching wildlife from the road, make sure not to stop in the middle of the road or park somewhere that isn’t a roadside pullout.
Finally, remember that all animals in Yellowstone are wild and can be dangerous, so be aware of their location and treat them with respect.