Finding wintering wildlife isn’t as hard as it might seem if you just know where to look.
During the winter months, it is easy to assume that all our natural world is running at a low idle, keeping the fires stoked just enough to allow a reawakening come spring. That supposition leads to the reasoning that wildlife encounters will be scarce as dinosaur sightings. That is not the case, but you do need to know where to look and sometimes be willing to travel a bit. And if you are relatively new to the area, finding places on your own can be difficult.
So, with that in mind, I am going to divulge some of the best places to see wildlife in our area during the winter.
Most big game animals migrate from their summer haunts to lower country to spend the winter and that can be a good thing for wildlife watchers as the animals are concentrated in specific areas. Some winter ranges, such as Sand Creek desert north of St. Anthony, are off limits to human visitation, but there are many other places you can go. For instance, you can often see mule deer, moose and white-tailed deer on the South Fork up or down stream from Heise. Early morning and late afternoon are best. Scan the foothills with binoculars for mule deer and look in the riparian areas for moose and whitetails.
Bighorn sheep can be found by traveling to Jackson, Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge and taking the refuge road that goes behind Miller Butte. If you take Main Street past the hospital, you should drive right to it. You can also find bighorns near the junction of Highway 87 and 287 west of Quake Lake, Montana. Both of these are a bit of a drive from Idaho Falls and early mornings are best.
Elk can be consistently seen at the National Elk Refuge mentioned above and you can even take a sleigh ride to see them. Check with the visitor center north of the Forest Service office in Jackson. The Madison River, along Highway 287 toward Ennis, Montana, is another great place to see lots of elk. If you have access to snowmobiles, try Fall Creek out of Swan Valley. Just remember that you are restricted to the trails. The hills and canyons are for the wintering elk and mule deer.
The best place to see mountain goats is Alpine, Wyoming. Just start up the canyon toward Hoback and watch for goats on the south face to the left. Make sure to use one of the pullouts to stay out of the way of traffic.
You can find lots of waterfowl, including swans, by finding open water. Common places include downtown Idaho Falls by Freeman Park, Harriman State Park, Last Chance and Mack’s Inn in Island Park, South Fork of the Snake River and Deer Parks Wildlife Mitigation Unit west of the North Menan Butte. This last one can be home to over 2,000 swans some winters. That is quite a sight.
For mammals like foxes, coyotes and rabbits, try Market Lake WMA at Roberts, Cartier Slough WMA next to Beaver Dick Park on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River or Mud Lake WMA near Terreton. These are all accessible to vehicles, but four-wheel-drive is recommended. Craters of the Moon National Monument west of Arco is also a good place, but the loop road is closed until spring and you will have to snowshoe in.
Don’t forget that even though the inner road through Grand Teton Park is closed, the highway is still open as is the Gros Ventre road up to Slide Lake. There can be a lot of wildlife there. Also, the inner road is open from the north as far south as Signal Mountain Lodge. One of my favorite fox images came from there one winter.
Finally, even though most of Yellowstone is open only to over-the-snow guided tours right now, Lamar Valley is still open to all wheeled vehicles. It is a bit of a jaunt so we usually book a room in Gardiner. Depending on when you go, there can be a lot of wildlife opportunities there.
So, get out and find some wildlife to watch. There are plenty of opportunities if you look for them.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho
TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.