Dangerous Game of North America

By Chuck Hawks

Photograph courtesy of the Center for Bison Studies, Montana State University.

Hunting dangerous game has an irresistible allure for some hunters. Otherwise sane sportsmen positively relish the opportunity to pit their courage and skill against huge herbivores born with a bad attitude and fierce predators whose natural inclination is to look upon creatures the size of Homo sapiens as dinner. In most cases such sportsmen must pay big bucks and endure considerable hardship before the hunt even begins, and there is often only a slender chance of success. Yet the romance of the dangerous game hunt endures.

By "hunting" we mean fair chase, on the ground, with sporting arms. Not machine gunned from the air, potted from trains or vehicles, sniped from unassailable stands, executed in a trap, or treed by hounds. No animal, no matter how grand, can be regarded as dangerous in those scenarios.

The greatest diversity of dangerous game in huntable populations is found primarily on two continents, North America and Africa. There is, to be sure, some dangerous game in Asia, Europe, South America and Australia, but it is North American game that will be the focus of this article.

Note that this is a hunting article; it is about big game animals. Not included are dozens of creatures harmful or deadly to man, such as black widow spiders, poisonous snakes, alligators, and domestic dairy bulls. These sorts of animals injure and kill far more people each year than dangerous game animals, but they are not pursued by sport hunters. Nor are animals that can dangerous in packs but not generally as individuals, such as wolves, included here.

The temperament of the individual animal at the moment of a life and death encounter has a great deal to do with just how dangerous a hunt becomes. Taken unaware most creatures, even great predators, are relatively easy to put down if the shot is good. But if already frightened or angry the same animal can take a lot of lead. And animals, just like people, differ in their individual temperament. Cross the path of a naturally belligerent animal on a "bad hair day" and the hunter can become the hunted in a flash.

I have read that the ideal range envelope for engaging North American dangerous game extends from 50 to 150 yards. The principle is to be close enough to guarantee a vital hit with the first shot, but not so close that the beast can get to the hunter before he or she can get off a second shot if a charge ensues. This seems like excellent advice to me. Never take a long shot at any dangerous animal, and avoid shooting at very short range if at all possible.

There is a natural tendency to over estimate the size of game animals in the field. The nominal live weights of male adult game quoted in this article are based on the extensive research done by Edward A. Matunas and published in the Lyman 47th Reloading Handbook.

Killing power is obviously important when hunting dangerous game. Use enough rifle! Penetration is key. Shoot controlled expansion bullets known for deep penetration. As in any hunting situation, but particularly when dealing with potentially dangerous game, the most important component of killing power is bullet placement. If you have any doubt about your ability to put your first bullet into an immediately vital spot, DON'T SHOOT!

Grizzly, Brown and Polar bears

On the North American continent, dangerous game is generally rather thin on the ground. Most species live in places far removed from major population centers. This is particularly true of the most glamorous species, the great bears: grizzly, brown and polar. They are hunted primarily in northern Canada and Alaska, although relatively small populations of grizzly bears can be found in some of the Western United States. Adding to the difficulty of the hunt is the fact that the great bears are protected in many areas.

These great bears are the largest predators on earth, the top of the food chain wherever they live and belligerent by nature. They have fair eyesight and excellent hearing and sense of smell. They are armed with fearsome fangs, huge claws and are immensely strong. They can move silently in thick country and yet easily outrun a man. They must never be taken lightly and should not be approached except under favorable conditions.

Polar bears are denizens of the far north. Their normal prey is seals and (in the appropriate season) bird's eggs and fledglings, but they will kill and eat pretty much anything they can stalk and catch, including people. They are strong swimmers, seemingly immune to Arctic water temperatures. The great white bears are unchallenged in the wastelands they inhabit and so are generally afraid of nothing.

An average male polar bear will scale about 900 pounds, a very large specimen1100 pounds and an exceptional individual can grow to 1550 pounds. Even females, which are generally smaller than males, have been known to weigh as much as 900 pounds.

Grizzly and Brown bears are actually the same species. The division is geographical, not genetic. On the coast they are brown bears and inland they are grizzly bears. Abundant forage, particularly the great Alaskan salmon runs, provide the opportunity for the coastal brown bears to attain prodigious size. An adult grizzly might attain a weight of 700 pounds (400 pounds for a female). A very large brown bear might weigh 1000 pounds and an exceptional example can scale 1600+ pounds. That is bigger than most buffalo, which in prehistoric times were preyed upon by grizzly bears.

Both grizzly and brown bears are temperamental, ferocious and can be very unpredictable. They are also intelligent and curious. Do not underestimate these creatures. It is recommended that non-residents hunt with an experienced guide.

Use plenty of rifle when hunting any of the great bears. About 3000 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy (ME) is good. The various 7mm Magnums and the .30-06 with heavy bullets of high sectional density (SD) are the minimum recommended calibers. Better still are calibers such as the various .300 and 8mm magnums, .338-06 A-Square, .338 Winchester Magnum, .340 Weatherby Magnum, .35 Whelen, .350 Remington Magnum, .358 Norma Magnum, 9.3x62mm, 9.3x64mm, 9.3x74R, the .375 Magnums, .405 Winchester, .450 Marlin and .45-70 (with appropriate loads). The powerful medium bore cartridges are generally regarded as ideal bear medicine. I have read that the most popular caliber used by Alaskan guides to "back-up" their clients is the .338 Win. Mag., which speaks volumes.

Bison (buffalo)

The most dangerous game animal in the lower 48 United States is the bison. Bison have made a dramatic comeback from near extinction at the beginning of the 20th Century and are now hunted in several Western states, usually on private land. They are common in certain National Parks, where they injure and kill far more people than grizzly bears. They are the only "thick-skinned" game in North America.

The North American Bison is one of the largest of the world's bovines, a class of animals known for great vitality and unpredictable temperament. Buffalo were slaughtered for their hides by professional hunters in the latter quarter of the 19th Century, much as elephants were slaughtered in Africa for their ivory, but hunting these huge beasts one on one is a different, and potentially dangerous, proposition.

Bison are generally not as aggressive as the African Cape buffalo, but they are much bigger and can be very hard to kill. If they feel threatened or take exception to a hunter's behavior, they may charge. In that event they may simply run over the target of their ire and keep going, hook the offender with their horns and toss them into the air or, if really angry, pound them into the ground. Being trampled or tossed practically guarantees serious injury (or worse) and no one survives a pounding.

Powerful medium bore rifles are the preferred choice when hunting bison, much as they are for hunting the great bears. Deep penetration is crucial, so only tough bullets of high sectional density should be chosen. The A-Square Dead Tough, Barnes TSX, Hornady SP-RP InterLock, Nosler Partition, Remington Core-Lokt Ultra, Speer Trophy Bonded, Swift A-Frame and Woodleigh Weldcore are examples of appropriate bullets. Although many bison have been killed by hunters using rifles in the 7mm Magnum and .30-06 class, calibers starting at .338 are more appropriate. Examples of reasonable cartridge choices include the .338-06 A-Square, the .338 Magnums, .35 Whelen, .350 Rem. Magnum, .358 Norma Magnum, 9.3x62mm, 9.3x64mm, 9.3x74R and the various .375 Magnums.

Traditional 19th Century choices for hunting buffalo were big bore cartridges like the .45-70 Government and .50-90 Sharps. These will still do the job, particularly with maximum loads in strong rifles, as will the more recent .450 Marlin and .458 Win. Magnum. Again, deep penetrating premium bullets of good SD are the ticket. Buffalo are tough! (Although their steaks are not--they are excellent eating.)

Black bear and Cougar

In North America we have two smaller predators that are well equipped to be dangerous game, although they usually are not dangerous to hunters. These are the black bear and the cougar (a large cat about the size of an African leopard). Both are usually shy and retiring, although on rare occasion they can become aggressive. They are generally regarded as CXP2 class game.

Black bear and Cougar have traditionally been run by dog packs and shot after being treed by the hounds, when they are helpless. (Both species are good tree climbers and will climb to escape when out numbered.) This may be "sport" of a sort, but it bears little relationship to fair chase hunting.

In several states the use of dogs to hunt black bear and cougar has been outlawed, forcing hunters who wish to bag one of these fine animals to do so one-on-one, on the ground. This usually requires skill and hard work, and trophies collected in this manner are indeed something to be proud of. Both black bear and cougar are increasing in numbers where fair chase hunting is the law.

Other states have gone too far and outlawed all hunting of these big predators, especially cougar. The usual result is a predator population explosion. This is unwise, as within a couple of generations the animals both deplete the deer population and lose their fear of man. They then begin to look on us and our domestic pets as an alternative food source. We are, after all, about the size of their natural prey and easier to catch. Such protectionism is indicative of a basic lack of understanding of the realities of nature.

Black bear

Black bear are very widely distributed across North America. They are found in all of the Western states in the U.S., most of the Eastern states and most Canadian Provinces.

Blacks are the smallest of the North American bear species, probably weighing no more than an average size man in some locales. In others, very large black bears can run to 500 pounds and extreme individuals can run to 650+ pounds. Coastal British Columbia, for example, is famous for its trophy black bear hunting. On average, adult males probably weigh about 300 pounds.

Most black bears are shot as incidental trophies by deer hunters. Thus practically every caliber that is judged suitable for deer hunting has been used to bag black bear. Great numbers of black bears have been killed with .30-30's, while the .32 Special, .35 Remington and .45-70 have traditionally been considered ideal for hunting black bear in the woods. They still are.

Black bears have thicker fur, skin and bones than deer of similar weight and are much stronger. Anyone specifically seeking a trophy bear would be wise to use an "all-around" rifle in the .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .303 British, .308 Winchester and .30-06 class. These have the power to discourage a black bear that wants to take on the hunter. Such occurrences are rare, but they do happen and it is better to be safe than sorry.

Medium and big bore cartridges, such as the .338 Federal, .338-06, .358 Winchester, .35 Whelen, .350 Rem. Mag., 9.3x62mm, .444 Marlin and .450 Marlin have the power to stop a black bear in his tracks with a well placed bullet, just as the same cartridges will stop a lion (which is a similar size predator). Rifles more powerful that these can certainly be employed, but they kick more and the extra power is unnecessary.

Cougar (mountain lion, puma, panther)

This big cat goes by several names, but they all refer to the same animal. The North American cougar may be about the same size as a leopard, but he is far less aggressive and dangerous. Cougar are generally shy in the extreme, much preferring to just fade away rather than take on a hunter. They are intelligent and curious, however, and have been known to stalk hunters just to observe their behavior. In the great majority of cases they mean no harm and remain undetected.

Cougars are becoming more numerous and cougar encounters are increasing in frequency. Fair chase cougar hunting is now viable in several areas, although it remains very difficult, because cougar are so wary. Most cougar are bagged by deer hunters who simply get lucky.

Cougar are faster, tougher and stronger than deer, but not much larger. Therefore, it stands to reason that any respectable deer rifle should also be satisfactory for hunting cougar. Leaving aside the marginal deer calibers, including handgun cartridges adapted to rifles, the list of suitable cougar cartridges reads much like the list of black bear cartridges mentioned above. Because cougar do not attain the size of large black bears, the medium bore magnums need not be employed. Calibers such as the 6.5x55, .260 Remington, .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .30-30, .300 Savage, .303 British, .308 Marlin Express, .308 Winchester, .30-06, .32 Special, .338 Marlin Express, .338 Federal, .35 Remington and .358 Winchester are all that is required.

In the very rare eventuality of a cougar attack, situational awareness is likely to be far more important than a powerful rifle. Human beings attacked by cougar usually have no hint of the animal's presence until the cat is upon them. The primary danger from a cougar is not being charged while hunting; it is being stalked while picking berries or jogging. Nevertheless I, for one, am glad to see these fine North American cats increasing in numbers, as long as they are hunted as game animals.


As can be seen from the forgoing, the dangerous game animals of North America are predators, with the sole exception of the bison. These predators range from the fearless polar bear to the timid cougar, but all of them have powerful jaws, sharp teeth and long claws. Anyone hunting such creatures would be well advised not to take them lightly.

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Copyright 2004 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.