LINCOLN — State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha took his first shot Wednesday at repealing Nebraska's mountain lion hunting season.
During testimony at a hearing on his Legislative Bill 671, Chambers said he was not persuaded by arguments from those who support cougar hunting.
“I will do all I can to prevent the extermination of any species in this state, especially when it's a predator at the top of the chain,'' he said.
Chambers offered a concession to opponents of his bill. He said he won't seek to repeal current legal authority that allows farmers and ranchers to shoot a mountain lion if it is a threat to livestock or for anyone to defend himself or herself against a cougar.
He said he never intended to disarm Nebraskans. Chambers said that he wanted to make people aware they could defend themselves and that a hunting season is not needed.
Nine other speakers called for an end to the cat hunts. At least 16 letters from Nebraskans and others supported Chambers' bill.
Opponents included the Nebraska Big Game Society, Nebraska Sportsmen's Foundation, the Nebraska division of the Izaak Walton League and three landowners in the Pine Ridge of northwest Nebraska.
Scott Smathers, executive director of the sportsmen's foundation, said the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission should be able to set a season if needed.
“Let Game and Parks do what it does best, regulate and manage game species,'' he said. “Allow the law time to work.''
Henry “Rick'' Brandt of Lincoln, a member of the big game society, said mountain lions someday will be a problem in Nebraska.
“It's good to have someone competent to manage them,'' he said.
Stacy Swinney of Chadron, a Dawes County Board member, said the Pine Ridge already has a serious mountain lion problem. He said cougars have lost their fear and respect of humans and walk through rural homesteads at will, day or night.
“We live with them,'' he said. “Let's make them afraid of us.''
Mountain-lion hunting emerged as a political target after Chambers read of the lottery and auction that provided the first hunting permits.
Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, whose Natural Resources Committee heard Wednesday's testimony, was one of seven gubernatorial candidates who visited Hyannis on Jan. 6 to woo Sand Hills farmers and ranchers. All seven said they supported the cougar hunting season.
Agriculture and wildlife organizations nationally weighed in on the issue. The Nebraska Cattlemen and the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation took neutral positions. So did the Game and Parks Commission.
Supporters of Chambers' bill include the Cougar Fund and Thomas Mangelsen, the noted wildlife and nature photographer from Nebraska and a founder of the Cougar Fund.
Mangelsen wrote a letter saying existing state law serves public safety and protection of livestock.
“Managing predators for their existence — not their demise — is in both the interest of the environment and the people,'' he wrote. “Cougar hunting has no place in the present or future of my home state.''
The commission this month opened its first cougar season, which allows for the killing of up to four cats from a designated hunting unit in the Pine Ridge. Wildlife biologists say genetic studies and other research indicate there is a breeding population of about 22 of the animals in the rugged region.
Two hunters each killed a cougar during the second day of the inaugural hunting season. A second season in the Pine Ridge is scheduled to begin Feb. 16. Much of the rest of Nebraska is open to year-round mountain lion hunting for those who buy a $15 permit.
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.