LINCOLN — This was the year of the mountain lion in Nebraska — from the ridges and canyons of the Pine Ridge to the halls of the State Capitol.
But the landscape is shifting in 2015.
After a year in which more female mountain lions were killed than what wildlife biologists say may be good for the population, prospects for continued hunting are uncertain.
Meanwhile, in the Nebraska Legislature, legislative lion Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha plans to try again to repeal the law giving the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission the authority to establish cougar seasons.
“Wildlife belongs to the populace of the state,” Chambers said. “I don’t think the best interests of the public or wildlife have been given proper consideration.”
Regardless of any legislative action, cougar hunters won’t be in the field again next year unless the commission authorizes a season. And the commission is stepping back to analyze the impact of this inaugural year of mountain lion hunting that saw hunters kill five cougars. At least 11 cats died by other means, including from illegal hunting, traps and being hit by vehicles.
Game and Parks Director Jim Douglas said wildlife biologists have a lot to learn from the state’s first regulated mountain lion hunting season. He is preparing a report to brief commissioners in January, and he declined to say whether he thinks there could be a season in 2015.
“Non-hunting (mountain lion) mortalities were high this year. Were they a new normal?” Douglas said. “What additional research or mountain lion population estimates do we need?”
One important factor is the deaths of eight female cougars (by hunting and other causes) this year in the Pine Ridge of northwest Nebraska, the center of the state’s cougar population. The relatively high number of lost females reduces the resiliency of the estimated population of 22 cats in the Pine Ridge to withstand additional mortalities, biologists said.
Douglas’ report will be a starting point for wildlife biologists and commissioners for eventually determining if and when to sanction future cougar seasons. Douglas said Game and Parks biologists are working closely with game agencies in South Dakota and Wyoming — both of which conduct mountain lion hunting seasons — to develop a more geographically comprehensive management plan.
Game and Parks views mountain lions as a valuable part of the state’s ecosystem and has intensively documented their return in Nebraska.
Mountain lions were a native species to the state, until being driven out in 1890. They started recolonizing northwest Nebraska in 1991. Kittens have been born in the Pine Ridge every year since 2007. There also is recent evidence of reproduction in the Wildcat Hills near Scottsbluff and the Niobrara River valley near Valentine.
Wildlife biologists and lawmakers navigated a trail of social and political issues to establish this year’s mountain lion seasons after then-State Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth shepherded the cougar hunting bill through the Legislature in 2012. His bill allowed the commission to start selling cougar hunting permits at some point in the future. The future arrived in late 2013, when permits went on sale via auction and lottery for use in 2014.
Interviews with Game and Parks officials and agency emails obtained by The World-Herald indicate commission biologists and others acknowledged there were people who would never support hunting mountain lions. They also pledged to limit the number of cats taken to sustainably manage the species.
Nearly two years ago, Sam Wilson, carnivore program manager, emailed a Lincoln woman who said she didn’t accept the argument that “we need to kill mountain lions in order to save them.”
“We understand,” Wilson said, “that the people of Nebraska have strong opinions regarding mountain lion management ranging from wanting complete protection to complete eradication.”
Wilson explained that Nebraska’s cougars are not an isolated population. They are genetically interconnected with mountain lions in South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. Nebraska’s cougars are at the eastern tip of an estimated population of 25,000 to 50,000 mountain lions extending from Nebraska to the Pacific Ocean.
Wilson said that the cats freely migrate back and forth among the states and that his surveys have indicated a small “sustainable harvest” of a few mountain lions could be held in Nebraska without endangering the population.
Since 1995, when mountain lions were first listed as a game animal, they had been protected from hunting in Nebraska.
“This is what allowed the western population to establish itself in our state,” Wilson said.
Some cougars set off across Nebraska in search of new territory. Wildlife biologists have confirmed more than 100 sightings of mountain lions outside of the Pine Ridge since 1991.
Wilson said any cougar hunting in Nebraska can be considered an extension of the hunting allowed in South Dakota, Wyoming and other western states. The cougar recolonization of the South Dakota Black Hills, North Dakota Badlands and Nebraska Pine Ridge over the past two decades is a testament to reasonable mountain lion management in western states, he said. Populations increased despite hunting.
In another email to a hunting opponent, Wilson said regulated hunting is better for the species than people taking matters into their own hands.
“This issue ... really boils down to the premise that mountain lions have to be accepted in Nebraska by the public, especially private landowners (and) livestock owners who live with them on their land,” Wilson wrote.
Wilson acknowledged that many ranchers see mountain lions as a liability, posing a risk to livestock and children.
He said the “shoot, shovel and shut up” solution some ranchers use to deal with mountain lions is illegal, although some landowners may prefer it to state laws governing how to handle a lion that poses a threat.
Nebraska law allows cougars to be killed if they are stalking people or behaving aggressively. Ranchers and farmers also may kill one if it is hunting or killing livestock.
There has been one documented incident of a cougar killing livestock in Nebraska. It happened this summer in the Sand Hills.
There have been no incidents of a mountain lion attacking a human in Nebraska. Several mountain lions that strayed into cities or were discovered around ranch and farm buildings have been killed by law enforcement officers over the years to ensure public safety.
Still, not every encounter with people ends badly for a mountain lion.
One evening in August 2013, Ted and Susan Vastine watched a cougar cross a pasture toward their house nearly 3 miles south of Chadron.
The big cat came into the yard, drank twice from a small pond and reclined nearby in the shade of several trees.
Two Dawes County deputy sheriffs arrived and joined the Vastines in watching the mountain lion from about 25 yards away for an hour. The couple told the officers they didn’t want the animal harmed.
The observers took photographs, some with flashes to illuminate the scene. The lion ignored the activity. They watched until it left the yard toward dark.
Greg Schenbeck, a Game and Parks biologist at the Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area near Crawford, said it was the first time the Vastines had seen the cougar on their property, although it appeared that the cat was familiar with the yard and available water.
Game and Parks’ goal in establishing the Pine Ridge cougar seasons this year was to provide hunting opportunities while allowing a slight to moderate reduction in the population. Nebraska conducted two 45-day seasons in the Pine Ridge earlier this year for hunters with permits won in a lottery or at auction. Cougar hunting is currently closed in the Pine Ridge.
Unlimited hunting continues, however, in the Prairie Unit across most of the rest of Nebraska, where habitat is not considered suitable for mountain lions. The season remains open there through Wednesday for Nebraska residents who obtain a $15 permit.
Chambers won legislative approval of a bill earlier this year to take away Game and Parks’ authority to establish mountain lion seasons, only to have it fail when he couldn’t muster enough votes to overcome a veto by Gov. Dave Heineman.
Chambers said will try again when the session opens next week.
“It’s immoral,” he said.
Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala, who wants to keep the state law allowing mountain lion hunting, expressed doubt that Chambers can succeed in ending mountain lion hunting, even if there is no season in 2015. Schilz is running for chairman of the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, which would take up Chambers’ repeal bill.
“I think it will be a challenge once again to pass a ban,” he said.
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.
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