By Candice Gardner
Few things are more thrilling that the experience of seeing wild animals up close and personal. From the smallest to the largest, no place in the United States can deliver quite like Yellowstone National Park, which boasts promised viewing of the Yellowstone Big Five most times of the year. But only if one knows where to look. What animals make up the Yellowstone Big Five? The grizzly bear, bison, bighorn sheep and wolf. All magnificent in their own right, each has territories inside the park that are their preferred locations and with a little education and insight into common behavior patterns, can be found.
Yellowstone Big Five
Here is a little inside help for finding each of these animals:
#1) Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis): Distinguished from the black bear by a flat, dish-shaped face and a large muscular shoulder hump on the back. If still uncertain, the long four inch claws on the front paws will leave no doubt. Grizzlies are aggressive by nature, but females (sows) are fiercely protective of their young. Both male and female bears deserve the maximum amount of respect and caution. Again, the Lamar Valley is a favorite viewing spot for this, the most thrilling of all species in the Yellowstone Big Five. Spring, summer and fall are the optimal times for viewing as the grizzly often hibernates in winter months. Best times to see them are dawn and dusk. A personal favorite is along the Yellowstone River as it flows through the Lamar Valley from Roosevelt Junction to the northeast park entrance. The Hayden Valley on the east side of the highway is also a popular spot. Grizzlies usually bed down in the midday hours. Weighing upto 700+ lbs. they are constantly looking for high protein calories to sustain their large size and in the fall when they enter the period called hyperphasia. This increases viewing possibilities into much of the daytime hours as well. Hyperphasia is the increased awareness of the need to feed and store enough calories to sustain a bear throughout the long, harsh Yellowstone winters.
When watching, your distance should be no closer than 100 yards. Grizzlies are fast and they swim well. If seen across the riverbank, know they can cross a river in an amazingly short amount of time. Grizzly temperament varies among bears and some are more tolerant of human presence than others. Warning signs of attack are huffing sounds which indicate stress, pawing the ground and direct eye contact. For safe viewing, one should never be close enough to experience any of the signs of an impending attack.
#2) Bison (Bison bison): The largest by far and the easiest to spot, bison are herd animals that spend most of their time feeding. As the largest North American land mammal, a bison bull can weight up to 2000 lbs. and range in size from 70 to 80 inches height at the shoulder. They roam freely throughout the park, sometimes as solitary males and often in groups called herds. The larger herds are usually found in the Lamar Valley located in the northern area of the park or in the Hayden Valley in the central area of Yellowstone National Park between Yellowstone Falls and Yellowstone Lake.
Always view bison from a safe distance which is 25 yards according to the National Park Service. Bison may appear docile, but they can also be very fast, able to run in excess of 35 mph and can be quite aggressive if provoked. Sometimes just being too close in proximity will cause a charge, so caution is important. Danger signs to watch for are pawing the ground and flicking the tale. A raised tail is a sign of imminent danger so give these big animals the respect they deserve by viewing from a safe distance. Do not exit your car if a herd is in close proximity as the bulls are more watchful than you may realize. Viewing opportunities for bison are year round in Yellowstone.
#3) Elk (Cervus elaphus): Much larger than deer, elk are always a source of attention among frequent Yellowstone Park visitors. Bull elk (males) range in size from 500-900+ lbs. with their female counterparts weighing in at 400-600 lbs. They carry the unfortunate statistic of being the main diet of wolves. Elk calves are also frequent prey for mountain lions and grizzlies. Breeding generally in the month of September, May and June, these months are often ideal viewing times for the new moms and calves as they come together in nursery groups to help protect the newborn calves against predators. Generally docile in nature, elk can be viewed in Gibbon Meadow near Norris Junction as well as in Mammoth Hot Springs, both in and just outside of town on the road to Roosevelt Junction. Always a favorite because of their large size, the National Park Service recommends a viewing distance of 25 yards for maximum safety. Elk, particularly males, can charge observers and are most likely to exhibit this behavior in the breeding season from late August through the month of September. Animals in the wild are always faster than humans and outrunning them is futile. Warning signs are direct eye contact and taking notice of your presence. This means back up and give this large animal the space it needs to continue with its normal behavior. Often, animal signals are subtle and unskilled park visitors do not pick up on the signs in time to avoid an attack.
#4) Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis): Impressive in stature and ability, the Bighorn sheep never disappoints observers. They often summer at higher elevations and are always found on or near cliffs regardless of the time of year. The cliffs near McMinn Bench between Mammoth and Gardiner, (north park entrance) are a frequent location for likely viewing at a closer vantage point. An impressive species, the male has horns weighing up to 40 lbs. of their 175 -315 lbs. total bodyweight. Females weigh in at a maximum of 130 lbs. and have shorter, less curved horns. Interesting to watch, they span the steep cliffs with relative ease which is their main defense against predators. Occasionally seen along the road, observers need to remain aware of interest or direct eye contact which may proceed a charge. Give these sheep a comfortable 25 yards if on foot.
#5) Gray Wolf (Canis lupus): The fiercest and most elusive predator in the park, the gray wolf hunts and kills with pack coordination making a daunting challenge for the object of the pack’s hunt. Opportunistic in nature, the gray wolf sustains its pack by the kill of young bison and elk calves or by singling out an older, weak or injured member of the respective herd. The wolf pack is led by a dominant alpha male and alpha female, who are generally the only ones to breed inside each pack. The Lamar Valley and Slough Creek area is prime wolf territory as is the Hayden Valley. Again, dawn and dusk are prime viewing times. Most wolves can be seen through spotting scopes in these areas. Occasionally a lone wolf is spotted closer to the road especially in the Lamar Valley between Roosevelt Junction and the northeast entrance of the park. Active year round, the wolves have an advantage in the winter months as they are well suited to the deep snow and cold temperatures and can be seen in closer proximity during the winter. Give these fierce predators at least 100 yards distance if you are fortunate enough to see them closer to the road.
The first stop for animal viewing opportunities should always be the Yellowstone Association. They have an interactive map with all recently reported animal sightings that can give exact spotting locations. For the best Yellowstone Big Five viewing, ask about any recent kill sites. When a dead animal, frequently a bison, is discovered, it brings many of the Big Five animals together in one location. At a kill site, it is possible to view, one or more grizzlies, several wolves, birds, antelopes and more in one location at the same time. The Yellowstone Association is located in Gardiner, Montana only two blocks from the North Entrance to the park.
- Join: Become a Member of the Yellowstone Association
- Learn: Discover all the Yellowstone Mammals
- Explore: Get Insider Tips on Photographing the Elk Rut
- Plan: Yellowstone Park Maps
Your Say: Tell us about your favorite animal sighting at Yellowstone.