The American Big 5: Can it happen today?
For generations the traditional top five big game animals, the Grizzly bear, Gray wolf, Cougar, Elk, and American bison, have been a treasured chase by sportsmen worth their salt. However, are these hunts still out there and within reach?
Largely eliminated from their range in the lower 48, these huge brown bears have been rebounding to where a number of Rocky Mountain states have been brainstorming what limited trophy hunts would look like for the past couple of years but have yet to pull the trigger. For those wanting a massive bruin, that leaves a trip either to Canada or Alaska. In the last frontier, the biggest state in the Union still boasts a population of more than 30,000 brown bears statewide. Of these, some 1,900 were harvested-- mainly by out of state sportsmen lead by (required by law) guides. As most mature males weigh between 500 and 900 lbs., it makes the cost of the guide and the danger of facing a charging grizzly in the woods worth it.
Following nearly a half century or reintroduction by conservation groups into once lost ranges of the Great Lakes and West, the gray wolf numbers have grown to the extent that in Minnesota the state put out a target harvest of 400 wolves in 2013 while 550 gray wolves were taken by hunters and trappers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in the first season many had put on decades. While a federal judge put a halt to Michigan's hunt, throwing the animal back on the endangered species list in the state in 2014 over the outcry of both the USFWS and the state Department of Natural Resources, currently Idaho and Wyoming have significant seasons. If nothing else, there is always, like the grizzly, Alaska and Canada.
The mountain lion has retained its numbers over the past several decades and has increased in many areas. From South Dakota to Utah, and Oregon cougar have been on the schedule for a generation or more. Even states that have long protected these big cats are introducing gun seasons to help keep their growing numbers in check. For instance, conservation officials approved Nebraska's inaugural mountain lion harvest season during 2014 after finding that they had recently recolonized three areas that had long been cougar free. Overall, these wildcats could be the easiest of all the B5 to get close to.
Other than the cougar, the elk is probably the most obtainable of the American big five. With viable legal elk seasons in just about every Western state, these are out there if the hunter wants to jump through some hoops. Even the mighty Roosevelt or Olympic Elk, from the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest from California to the Alaska Panhandle are an option. Growing to be almost half a ton in weight and nearly ten feet long, they are the size of a small horse and among one of the great bucket list deer in the world. While in past years it has been extremely hard to luck into a Roosevelt on a hunt, decades of steady conservation practices have brought their numbers up to where even California has a brief but viable season on these huge creatures. While guides offer the best chance of success, even non-resident hunters on public land in Oregon have a shot.
During the height of the great Plaines native tribes in the 19th century, the herds of mis-classified buffalo stretched across the horizon. By 1884, they bordered on extinction. Now, the numbers have rebounded to over 300,000 across the West. This means that modern bison seasons are growing. For instance this year, Wyoming saw the highest number of these animals legally harvested since they resumed their season. Of course those numbers were just 299 animals and to get one you had to be lucky enough to win a lottery, but still, its possible.
Looking at the numbers, if you were a hunter in 1975, the odds of you getting close to the Big Five in the U.S. was astronomically high. If not impossible, improbable perhaps.
Compared with how they look today, there could very well be a nickel in your future provided you do the legwork