Yellowstone  provides a marvelous natural setting in which to view bison, elk, moose, wolves, coyotes, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and other wild animals. One of the easiest ways to find wildlife is simply by watching for the brake lights, the cars pulled half off the road, and the cameras all pointed in one direction. Inevitably, you’ll find an elk or a bison placidly munching away, trying to remain oblivious to the chaos that surrounds it.
Be sure to bring binoculars for your trip to Yellowstone. A spotting scope is also helpful in searching for distant bears and wolves.
Because of the constant parade of visitors and the lack of hunting, many of Yellowstone’s animals appear to almost ignore the presence of people, and it isn’t uncommon to see visitors approach an animal without respecting its need for space.
Although they may appear tame, Yellowstone’s animals really are wild, and attacks are not uncommon. Those quiet bison can suddenly erupt with an enormous ferocity if provoked by photographers who come too close. Between 1983 and 1994, four people were killed by bison in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
Stay at least 25 yards away from bison and elk and at least 100 yards away from bears. Do not under any circumstances feed the park’s animals. This creates an unnatural dependency, is unhealthy for the animal, and may even lead to its death. You’ll find some entertaining (and simultaneously scary) safety videos of wildlife encounters with foolish tourists on the Yellowstone website (www.nps.gov/yell ).
The Park Service has a free pamphlet showing where you’re most likely to see wildlife in Yellowstone. Pick one up at any visitor center. During summer, the best wildlife-viewing hours are early in the morning and in the late afternoon to early evening.
Both black and grizzly bears are found throughout Yellowstone , but the days of bear jams along the park roads are long past because rangers actively work to prevent bears from becoming habituated to people. Most bears have returned to their more natural ways of living, although problems still crop up with occasional bears wandering through campgrounds in search of food.
You’re more likely to encounter a bear in the backcountry areas, and some places are closed to hiking for extended periods each year for this reason. The best places to watch for grizzlies along the road system are in the Hayden  and Lamar Valleys , near Mt. Washburn , and from Fishing Bridge  to the East Entrance . Black bears may be seen in forested areas throughout the park.
Stay at least 100 yards away from bears. Safety in grizzly country is always a concern, but statistically you are considerably more likely to be hurt in a traffic accident than to be mauled by a bear. There were just 22 bear-caused injuries in the park between 1980 and 1997—one injury for every 2.1 million visitors! Most of these injuries took place in backcountry areas and involved female bears with cubs or yearlings, and nearly all attacks took place after a surprise encounter with a bear. Three people were killed by Yellowstone bears in the last three decades of the 20th century, including a 1986 fatality caused when a photographer approached too close to an adult female grizzly. In 2010, a camper was killed in a nighttime attack at a Forest Service campground just outside the northeast corner of Yellowstone.
About 250 bighorns live within Yellowstone National Park , with much larger populations in the surrounding national forests. Look for bighorn sheep on cliffs in the Gardner River Canyon between Mammoth Hot Springs  and the town of Gardiner. Ewes and lambs also frequently appear just off the road on Dunraven Pass north of Canyon, and day-hikers commonly encounter rams up close on the slopes of Mt. Washburn . Another place to see bighorns is along Specimen Ridge .
Trumpeter swans—beautiful white birds with seven-foot wingspans—are a fairly common sight in Yellowstone, particularly on the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers and on Yellowstone Lake . Many trumpeter swans winter in hot-spring areas. These are some of the largest birds in America, weighing 20-30 pounds. Another large white bird here is the ungainly-looking and bulbous-billed white pelican, a common sight on Yellowstone Lake and near Fishing Bridge . More than 350 pairs of pelicans nest on the Molly Islands in Yellowstone Lake; this is one of the largest white-pelican breeding colonies in the Rockies. Bald eagles—America’s national bird—and ospreys have managed comebacks in recent years and are frequently seen along the Yellowstone River and above Yellowstone Lake. Look for golden eagles flying over the open grasslands of Lamar Valley  or Hayden Valley .
Bison are found in open country throughout Yellowstone, including Hayden , Lamar , and Pelican Valleys , along with the Firehole River Basin  (including Old Faithful). A favorite time to see bison in Yellowstone is late May, just after the new calves have been born. The calves’ antics are always good for laughs. Be sure to use caution around bison; many people have been gored when they’ve come too close. Always stay at least 25 yards away, preferably farther.
Although wolves get the media attention, visitors to Yellowstone are probably more likely to see another native of the dog family: the coyote. Keep your eyes open for coyotes anywhere in Yellowstone but especially in open grassy areas, where they are most easily spotted. During summer, you’ll often see them in small packs or alone as they hunt small mammals such as mice, voles, and pocket gophers. At other times of the year they prey on larger animals, including the calves of elk and pronghorn antelope, and scavenge carrion. Good places to look for coyotes are in the Blacktail Plateau  area and Lamar Valley , along with the Upper Geyser  and Lower Geyser  basinsnear Old Faithful.
Mule deer (also known as black-tailed deer) are common in many parts of Yellowstone during summer, but most migrate to lower elevations when winter comes. They are typically found in open areas containing sagebrush or grass. Mule deer are named for their long mulelike ears. They also have black-tipped tails and a peculiar way of pogoing away when frightened.
The smaller white-tailed deer are far less common in Yellowstone. You are most likely to find them along rivers or in brushy areas at low elevations, such as around Mammoth Hot Springs  or in Lamar Valley . Other places to watch for them are along Yellowstone Lake  and in the Upper Geyser Basin .
One animal virtually every visitor to Yellowstone sees is elk. About 30,000 of these regal animals summer in the park, and approximately 15,000 remain through the winter, primarily on the north end of Yellowstone. In summer, look for elk in Mammoth Hot Springs , Elk Park , Lamar Valley , and Gibbon Meadows , but you’re certain to also see them elsewhere. The bugling of bull elk is a common autumn sound in Yellowstone, as anyone who visits Mammoth at that time of year can attest. Winter snows push the elk to lower elevations on the north side of Yellowstone or out of the park into surrounding areas. Stay at least 25 yards away from elk.
The largest members of the deer family, moose are typically seen eating willow bushes in riparian areas inside Yellowstone National Park . The best places to look for moose are Hayden Valley , around Yellowstone Lake , the Willow Park area north of Norris , the southwestern corner along the Bechler and Falls Rivers, and along the Gallatin, Lamar, and Lewis River drainages.
These speedy and colorful ungulates (hoofed mammals) are common sights on the plains of Wyoming, but most of Yellowstone doesn’t provide adequate habitat. Pronghorn antelope are found only in sagebrush and grassy areas on the northern end of the park from Lamar Valley to the Gardiner area. The population totals about 200.
The best place to look for wolves is the open terrain of Lamar Valley , where the Druid pack are visible at many times of the year. Another excellent spot is Hayden Valley , where members of Mollie’s pack are commonly seen. Visit early in the morning or near dusk to increase your odds of seeing them. You may well hear their plaintive cry from your campground late at night, particularly at Slough Creek or Pebble Creek campgrounds.
Binoculars or spotting scopes are helpful for roadside wolf-watching. Rent quality scopes from Silver Gate General Store (406/838-3043) in Silver Gate, Montana, just outside the park’s northeast corner, or in Jackson  from Teton Adventure Gear (307/203-2915, www.tetonadventuregear.com ).
Wolf-watchers should follow the advice listed in the park newspaper. Noise can be a problem, especially in popular wolf-viewing areas, so avoid slamming car doors and keep other sounds to a minimum. And yes, it is illegal to imitate a wolf howl in the park. Do not follow the wolves around, because this may disturb them and affect their survival. Denning activity typically takes place early April-early May, with active denning areas closed to humans; check with the Park Service for closed areas.