Rancher Dale Wellnitz trailed fresh mountain lion tracks across his northwest Nebraska ranchstead before they seemed to vanish near the barn.
“Where in the devil did he go?” Wellnitz said he wondered.
Perplexed, Wellnitz leaned down and looked under a horse trailer parked in a lean-to shed on the side of the barn. Wellnitz got his answer.
Peering straight back at him was a mountain lion lying about 10 feet away under the trailer.
“So I eased back out of there, went to the house and had my wife call the game warden,’’ Wellnitz said.
Less than an hour later, the cougar was dead, shot after Heath Packett, a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission conservation officer, flushed it out of the shed.
The Sunday incident on Dale and Arlene Wellnitz’s ranch in the Pine Ridge area made the cougar the fifth to be shot and killed in Nebraska since October 2006. It was the 96th confirmed mountain lion sighting in Nebraska since 1991 and the 68th in the Pine Ridge region.
The mountain lion was a female, weighing about 100 pounds. It did not appear to have been nursing kittens. It was the 10th female cougar confirmed in Nebraska by state officials since 1991.
The cat was killed because Packett determined that its proximity to the house and the people on the ranch made it a safety risk.
Wellnitz first saw cougar tracks about 20 feet from his house when he cleared snow from a sidewalk about dawn. He thought the tracks headed toward a creek behind the barn, so Wellnitz fed his two horses — walking past the horse trailer a few times.
Then he noticed that the tracks didn’t head toward the creek. That’s when he got curious again and checked out the shed. Wellnitz stood with his horses and watched the lounging cat through binoculars while waiting for the arrival of Packett and Randy Benben, a Sheridan County trapper.
The cat came within about five feet of Packett when it darted out of the shed as Packett entered with a shotgun, Wellnitz said.
“It gave everyone a real thrill.”
Packett and Wellnitz shot at the cat as it ran away from the barn toward the creek. Packett killed the wounded cougar near the creek.
Wellnitz, a 64-year-old fourth-generation rancher, said he occasionally sees mountain lions or their tracks on his land. They are attracted by plentiful whitetail deer, wild turkeys and cottontail rabbits.
“She was in fine condition. She definitely wasn’t starving,” he said. “I figure she has been living nearby and was used to seeing us, so she came through the buildings rather than plodding through the deep snow.”
Cougars were driven or hunted from Nebraska more than a century ago. The first authenticated evidence of their return was in 1991.
Cougars cannot be hunted or trapped in Nebraska. In practice, however, people are permitted to defend themselves without penalty if a mountain lion attacks or shows unprovoked aggression.
State Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth, whose district includes the Pine Ridge region of Nebraska, has introduced a bill that would allow landowners to get permits to kill mountain lions preying on their livestock or poultry. Legislative Bill 747 also would clarify state law to allow landowners to kill stalking or attacking cougars immediately, without a permit.
Wellnitz said he could have shot the cat himself but wanted Packett to make the decision.
“I don’t like them around my buildings or in my sheds,” Wellnitz said. “I’m getting too old for this.’’
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