Nebraska's first mountain lion hunting season could begin as early as next winter.
Surveys in western Nebraska indicate there is a large enough permanent cougar population in the Pine Ridge for a “limited harvest” there, said Sam Wilson, State Game and Parks carnivore manager.
An estimated 22 mountain lions live in the Pine Ridge area in northwest Nebraska. The actual population could be as low as 16 or as high as 37, Wilson said Friday.
The Nebraska Legislature approved a bill last year allowing for a mountain lion hunting season when Game and Parks approves. That could happen soon. The commission is expected to consider regulations governing a cougar season during its May 24 meeting in Chadron.
Mountain lions are native to Nebraska but vanished in the 1890s, when settlers and hunters poisoned or hunted them out of the state. The first confirmed sighting of a cougar in Nebraska in modern times was in 1991 in the Pine Ridge.
In addition to the Pine Ridge population, there have been 83 confirmed sightings of cougars elsewhere across Nebraska. Wilson said all male mountain lions seen outside the Panhandle probably aren't resident cats but those wandering after being kicked out of their home territory by a dominant male.
Cougars have roamed into eastern Nebraska and Iowa. Des Moines police killed a big cat near an elementary school in October. Monona County sheriff's deputies shot and killed a mountain lion treed in a pine near Blencoe in December 2011. Iowa has had about eight cougar sightings in the last 10 years.
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During a commission meeting in Omaha, Wilson said big cats from South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado are recolonizing Nebraska.
“Mountain lions are walking back into Nebraska from neighboring states,'' he said. “That barbed-wire fence on the border does not stop a mountain lion.”
The first cougar kittens were documented in the Pine Ridge in 2007, indicating a resident population. No females or kittens have been documented outside of Nebraska's Panhandle, Wilson said.
Wilson conducted genetic surveys in the Pine Ridge and in the Niobrara River valley near Valentine to help wildlife biologists make informed management decisions. He used specially trained retrievers to scour ridges and creek bottoms for cougar scat, or feces, in 2010 and 2012.
The study helps researchers determine the gender of each cat and estimate the population size. Researchers also looked for parent and offspring relationships.
The samples identified 13 different mountain lions (eight male and five female, two of them breeding) in 2010. Last year's study found 15 individual cougars (six male and nine female). Five of the 2012 cats matched were the same cougars identified in earlier genetic tests.
Cougars are found in a variety of habitats but prefer rougher, wooded areas. The abundance of prey, especially deer, is considered the most essential component of cougar habitat.
Wilson said the Pine Ridge is Nebraska's best habitat for the big predators.
“It just looks like lions should be there,” he said. “It's lion paradise.”
But paradise burned last year, when wildfires struck about 33 percent of the Pine Ridge's suitable cougar habitat, Wilson said.
Biologists estimated that the pre-fire Pine Ridge habitat could support 27 cougars. In a worst-case scenario, the post-fire Pine Ridge is likely to support 18 cats, Wilson said. A similar impact was felt in the Niobrara valley. The area could support 14 mountain lions before last summer's wildfires. Now habitat there may support as few as 10.
The fires destroyed trees and other “ambush cover'' that mountain lions require to stalk deer, turkey and other prey, Wilson said.
Wildlife biologists plan to model Nebraska's potential regulations and season on South Dakota's. South Dakota has a large population of mountain lions in the Black Hills, immediately north of Nebraska's Pine Ridge.
South Dakota's cougar season is under way. It started Dec. 26 and ends March 31, or when a limit of 100 total mountain lions are taken, or when a limit of 70 females are taken.
Hunters had taken 23 total South Dakota cats as of Friday. Twelve were female.
Wilson said Nebraska wildlife biologists prefer a winter hunting season to avoid leaving dependent kittens in the field if a female cougar is killed.
Nebraskans are permitted to shoot a mountain lion if it's threatening people or attacking or trying to attack livestock. Cougars not threatening people or causing livestock losses are to be left undisturbed.
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