It's not exactly nature's way, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service makes sure that the elk in this area eat well during the winter by feeding them alfalfa pellets. It keeps them out of the haystacks of area ranchers and creates a beautiful tableau on the peaceful flats along the Gros Ventre River: thousands of elk, some with huge antler racks, dotting the snow for miles. Drivers along U.S. Hwy. 89 might also see trumpeter swans, coyotes, moose, bighorn sheep, and, lately, wolves. As autumn begins to chill the air in September, you'll hear the shrill whistles of the bull elk in the mountains; as snow begins to stick on the ground, about 5,000 animals make their way down to the refuge -- the world's largest winter concentration of elk. Although the cultivated meadows and pellets help the elk survive the winter, some biologists say this approach results in overpopulation and the spread of diseases such as brucellosis.
Regardless, this is a great opportunity to see these magnificent wapiti up close. Each winter from mid-December to March, the Fish and Wildlife Service offers horse-drawn sleigh rides that weave among the refuge elk. Riders early in the winter will find young, energetic bulls playing and banging heads, while late-winter visitors (when the Fish and Wildlife Service begins feeding the animals) wander through a more placid scene. Rides embark from the Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center (532 N. Cache St.) daily between 10am and 4pm on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets for the 45-minute rides cost $18 for adults and $14 for children 5 to 12 (free for kids 4 and under), and can be purchased at the visitor center.