It’s a cold gray morning in December with temperatures far below freezing when I pile into Kurt Johnson’s customized safari vehicle, a plush white Mercedes sprinter van with large windows, roof hatches, and his company logo – a bear paw with the name “Wild Things of Wyoming” – emblazoned on the side. Unlike what most of the population in Teton Village is doing this time of year – heading up to the mountain to tackle Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s famed ski slopes – we are heading down toward the Snake River and the sagebrush sea stretching out to the east.
My task today is to not just see as much local wildlife as I can, but to see it in a way I might not have before, with the help of Johnson, an accomplished photographer and owner of Wild Things of Wyoming, who leads photo safari tours in partnership with Hotel Terra and Teton Mountain Lodge. And there’s no better place to do it. Jackson is located in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a 34,375-square-mile range reaching across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, and one of the world’s best examples of an intact temperate.
Sighting #1: White-Tailed Deer
In less than 90 seconds, we spot a critter. It’s a deer tucked into the bare undergrowth of a cottonwood next to Moose-Wilson road, the narrow route that starts in Teton Village and runs eight miles north to the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center in Moose. While I’m surprised we’ve spied something so quickly, I know that the sighting is not that big of a deal – I see deer commonly here and at my home, just over Teton Pass in Teton Valley, Idaho, where I’ve lived for 15 years. But, in an instant, Johnson turns the everyday moment into a learning opportunity that brings depth to the doe, explaining that, on the Jackson side of the Tetons, only 1 in 100 is a white-tailed deer like the one before us. The rest are mule deer.
Sighting #2: Mule Deer
As we drop into Grand Teton National Park from the small outpost of Moose, we home in on a silhouette Johnson sees against a stand of lodgepole pines. It’s a bull moose, but by the time we’re close enough for a better glimpse, he’s gone. Johnson puts the car in reverse and we begin heading back. What we get to see instead is a muley standing right in front of the Murie Center, the ranch of the late and exponentially great conservationists Mardy and Olas Murie.
Sighting #3: Weasel, Bald Eagle & Moose
We work up the courage to brave the cold and unload at Black Tail Ponds, a popular overlook just north of Moose that offers a stunning view of the Tetons with the Snake River slinking through the foreground. What we think is a massive moose lurks in willows on the riverbank, but Johnson’s high-powered lens reveals that I’ve gotten excited over a large dead tree. Oh well, weasel tracks (turns out the Tetons are home to not one, but three different kinds), dotting the snow make up for it. So does the bald eagle we see in a few more minutes above the iconic Moulton Barn, followed by four more moose and ravens flocking around a carcass in the distance.
We stop again out in the sagebrush where two pairs of moose flank us – one set to the west, and a pair of young bulls to the east. We film as the moose spar against the backdrop of a geological oddity, the Gros Ventre slide. “What’s the technical term for that dingleberry on its neck?” I ask, referring to the dangling goiter-like growth that later research reveals is called a bell. “A moose-tache,” Johnson deadpans.
Sighting #5: Birds of Prey
As we drive toward the National Elk Refuge – a stone’s throw from Jackson’s Town Square, the wintering grounds for one of the world’s largest elk herds – we spot a lingering red-tailed hawk on a telephone pole. Usually, they’re south by now, says Johnson, but as with many species, their patterns are shifting with climate change. In another minute, we pass a large dead cottonwood with seven bald eagles roosting in its branches.
Sighting #6: Bighorn Sheep
As we curve into the north end of the refuge, I spot something moving on a distant hill. “Congratulations,” says Johnson, binos raised. “You’ve spotted our first bighorn.” It’s the first time I’ve seen bighorns in the Tetons. Counting nine, Johnson says I’m actually seeing a large percentage of the entire Gros Ventre herd. Five more sheep graze even closer to the road. As I look through the spotting scope, I watch as one of the rams curls his lips back, gums exposed while inching towards an ewe’s rear. It’s not just an awkward flirtation. Johnson tells me how the ram is sniffing via a specialized scent organ in the roof of his mouth for pheromones, investigating if she’s still in heat – again, something I would have missed entirely if it weren’t for Johnson.
Hotel Terra // Teton Mountain Lodge