Yellowstone National Park Wildlife: Animals You’ll Spot, Where to Best View Bison, Bears, Elk, Wolves, and Wildlife Safety

by Jon D. B.
yellowstone-national-park-wildlife-which-animals-youll-spot-bison-bear-elk-safety-more
Photo credit: Getty Images Archives, Outsider

Outsider’s guide to all the prolific wildlife you’re most likely to encounter – and how to do so safely – while visiting Yellowstone National Park (YELL).

In some national parks, like Acadia, birds are the star of the show. But here in Yellowstone, it’s all about mammalian megafauna. In fact, Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. The park’s prehistoric bison herds are legendary, and many other fascinating species call the vast park home. From the abundant, roaming elk to top predators like grey wolves and grizzly bears, Yellowstone National Park truly is a wildlife watcher’s dream.

Below, we’ll touch on the Yellowstone fauna you’re most likely to see while visiting the national park – and where you’re most likely to find them. But first, a few basic (but imperative) safety tips straight from park staff:

It is illegal to willfully remain near or approach wildlife, including birds, within any distance that disturbs or displaces the animal. Always remain at least 100 yards (91 meters) from bears or wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 meters) from all other wildlife.

Please use roadside pullouts when viewing wildlife. Use binoculars or telephoto lenses for safe viewing and to avoid disturbing wildlife.

Yellowstone National Park Wildlife Safety Regulations

Have those binoculars and telephoto lenses at the ready? Here are the best places to spot Yellowstone’s most famous wildlife.

Best Spots to See Yellowstone National Park’s Iconic Wildlife

*As the park cites, “Animals migrate in and out of Yellowstone in response to the availability of food, so what can be seen at any given location will vary greatly with season, weather, and other factors.”

  • Fishing Bridge: Grizzly bears
  • Hayden Valley: Bison, black bears, elk, grizzly bears, wolves
  • Lamar Valley: Bison, black bears, bighorn sheep, elk, grizzly bears, mule deer, pronghorn, wolves
  • Mammoth Hot Springs: Bison, black bears, elk, mule deer
  • Madison: Bison, elk
  • North Entrance: Bighorn sheep, bison, elk, pronghorn
  • Northeast Entrance: Moose
  • Old Faithful: Bison, elk
  • South Entrance: Moose
  • West Thumb: Elk, moose

Looking for birds? Check out the park’s tips for birding in Yellowstone.

Most Iconic Wildlife of Yellowstone National Park: Bison

bison-encounter-yellowstone-national-park-leads-hiker-being-flown-hospital
Photo by: Nano Calvo/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“It would be a rare day to come and spend in the park and not see a bison,” says Yellowstone Ranger Beth Taylor. They are, in many ways, the stars of the park. And for good reason. Yellowstone is the only place in the United States where bison (Bison bison) have lived continuously since prehistoric times. It is imperative we keep bison wild as a result, and maintain a safe distance from these surprisingly fast giants. Please maintain a 25 yards (23 meters) distance from bison at all times.

Where & When to See Bison in Yellowstone:

  • Year-round: Hayden and Lamar valleys
  • Summer: grasslands
  • Winter: hydrothermal areas and along the Madison River. Blacktail Deer Plateau, Tower, and the Gardiner Basin

The largest land mammals in North America, bison – and their tragic-to-remarkable conservation story – have become hallmarks of our country and the National Park Service. As of summer of 2021, it is estimated that around 5,450 bison reside in the park – up thousands from the early 20th century.

Thousands of Elk Call Yellowstone Home

missouri-hunter-makes-history-with-archery-elk-harvest
(Photo by: Peter Zenkl/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Of all the megafauna in Yellowstone, elk – or wapiti – are the most abundant. The species plays a vital role in the area’s ecosystem, and is the second largest member of the deer family, behind only the moose.

Where & When to See Elk in Yellowstone:

  • Summer: Cascade Meadows, Madison Canyon, and Lamar Valley.
  • Autumn, during “rut” or mating season: northern range, including Mammoth Hot Springs; Madison River.
  • Winter: Winter: migrate north to the northern range and around Gardiner, Montana; south to the Jackson Hole Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming.

During the summer,  somewhere between 10,000–20,000 elk travel Yellowstone in 6-to-7 different herds. As they winter in lower elevations outside the park, this decreases to around 4,000. Safety is crucial with elk, especially during their autumn/fall rut, in which males become overly aggressive. Please keep a distance of 25 yards (23 meters) from elk at all times.

Black Bears Remain Common in Yellowstone National Park

black-bear-destroys-car-after-getting-trapped-inside-before-escaping-through-windshield
(Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Today, our imaginations are dominated by visions of giant, fierce grizzly bears in Yellowstone. But for the majority of the 20th century, it was their smaller cousins – the black bears – that were synonymous with the park. The American black bear remains common within Yellowstone to this day, and you’re far more likely to view this species than the park’s inland brown (grizzly) bears.

Where & When To See Black Bears in Yellowstone:

Black bears (Ursus americanus) are the most common, widely distributed bear species in North America. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is, however, one of the few areas south of Canada where black bears coexist with the grizzly bears, and knowing the difference between these two species is crucial.

To learn how, please see our breakdown: How To Tell The Difference Between a Black Bear and a Brown Bear.

Grizzly Bears Dominate Yellowstone’s Ecosystem

idaho-grizzly-bear-caught-camera-after-killing-multiple-farm-animals
(Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ah, the grizzly bear; one of humanity’s most feared rivals and beloved animals. Yellowstone National Park has proven vital to the survival of these giant predators. Once on the brink of extinction, the estimated Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population has grown from 136 bears in 1975 – all the way to a peak of an estimated 757 by 2014 – with the number holding in the mid-to-lower 700s throughout the following decade.

Where & When To See Grizzly Bears in Yellowstone:

Safety: “Visitors should be aware that all bears are potentially dangerous. Park regulations require that people stay at least 100 yards (91 m) from bears (unless safely in your car as a bear moves by),” Yellowstone National Park states of their iconic wildlife. “Bears need your concern, not your food; it is against the law to feed any park wildlife, including bears.”

The Return of the Gray Wolf to Yellowstone National Park

wisconsin-dnr-recommends-harvest-quota-200-wolves
(Photo by: Dennis Fast / VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Once abundant from Canada to Mexico, European settlers nearly wiped out these iconic predators entirely by the 20th century. All native populations to Yellowstone were eradicated. But crucial work by the National Park Service and conservationist organizations led to their reintroduction in 1995. January 12, 2020, marked the 25th anniversary of wolves returning to Yellowstone.

Where & When To See Wolves in Yellowstone:

  • Year-Round: Gray wolves inhabit most of the park
  • Wolves’ peak activity is at dawn and dusk
  • Yellowstone’s Northern Range is one of the best places in the world to watch wolves

As of December 2021, YELL knows of at least 95 wolves in the park, with 8 individual packs noted. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is home to over 500 wolves. When visiting either, it is paramount to keep a distance of at least 100 yards (90 meters) from all wolves and bears.

Moose are Becoming Rarer in Yellowstone

vermont-plans-another-moose-hunt-fall-reduce-population
North American moose, Getty images archives

Once abundant wildlife, fewer than 200 moose are thought to call Yellowstone National Park home now. Over the last four decades, moose population has declined due to “loss of old growth forests surrounding the park, hunting outside the park, burning of habitat, and predators,” the park cites.

Where & When to See Moose in Yellowstone

  • Year-Round: Marshy areas of meadows, lake shores, and along rivers

While moose are generally considered solitary and peaceful giants, they should be treated with utmost caution. More people are injured by moose on a yearly basis in North America than by bears, wolves, and bison combined.

Other Wildlife To Keep an Eye Out for in Yellowstone National Park:

Remember, Wildlife Safety is Crucial in Yellowstone National Park

As YELL staff states: “Wild animals are unpredictable and dangerous. Every year people are injured when they approach animals too closely. Animals that attack people may need to be killed.”

In order to protect yourself – and the wildlife we love – always remain at least 100 yards (91 meters) from bears or wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 meters) from all other wildlife. If visitors violate rules, rangers may close roadside pullouts to protect animals and people.

The following tips will keep you and Yellowstone wildlife safe:

  • Never approach or pursue an animal to take its picture: use binoculars or telephoto lenses to get a better view.
  • If an animal moves closer to you, back away to maintain a safe distance.
  • If you cause an animal to move, you’re too close. It’s illegal to willfully remain near or approach wildlife, including birds, within any distance that disturbs or displaces the animal.
  • Park in roadside pullouts when watching/photographing animals: do not block traffic.
  • Stay in or next to your car when watching bears. If a bear approaches or touches your car, honk your horn and drive away to discourage this behavior.
  • Watch our wildlife safety videos and see the power of large wild animals.

And Remember: The Prairie Rattlesnake is the Only Dangerous, Venomous Snake in Yellowstone

Prairie Rattlesnake (Getty Images)

One of the best elements of exploring Yellowstone National Park is the absence of venomous snakes. Only one exists in park boundaries – the prairie rattlesnake – and only two bites are known in the entire history of the national park.

Prairie rattlesnakes are only found in the lower Yellowstone River areas of the park. This includes Reese Creek, Stephens Creek, and Rattlesnake Butte; all areas where habitat is drier and warmer than the majority of YELL.

No matter the wildlife, be sure to adventure safely in Yellowstone National Park, Outsiders! Until then, stick with us as we cover everything NPS.

Outsider.com