MAHONEY STATE PARK, Neb. — A hunting season for mountain lions in Nebraska’s Pine Ridge could return soon, based on a new population estimate for the big cats.

There were an estimated 59 adult and kitten mountain lions in the rugged Pine Ridge in northwest Nebraska last May and June, said Sam Wilson, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s carnivore program manager.

The estimated Pine Ridge cougar population ranged from 22 to 33 when Nebraska held its inaugural mountain lion hunting season in 2014.

“Population data likely supports holding a harvest season in the Pine Ridge,” Wilson told Game and Parks commissioners at a meeting Friday at Mahoney State Park.

The commission uses regulated hunting, when appropriate, as a primary strategy for meeting its mountain lion management goals and objectives.

Three males and two females were taken in northwest Nebraska during the first hunting season. No season was held during 2015-17 because of an unusual number of mountain lion deaths not related to hunting in 2014.

A decision on whether to establish a second hunting season is expected to be several months away.

Before commissioners receive a staff recommendation one way or the other, Wilson and other wildlife biologists will review the two scientific studies that produced the population estimate, continue to track mountain lion deaths by all causes and hold a public informational meeting in northwest Nebraska.

Just as it does for all game species, the commission has a mountain lion management plan. It calls for maintaining resilient, healthy and socially acceptable cougar populations. Mountain lions started recolonizing the state in recent decades and are recognized as an important component of the state’s native biodiversity.

Wilson monitors mountain lion populations by genetic analysis of cougar scat and with an established formula based on the number of cougars captured in a first attempt and then recaptured in a second attempt. Both methods estimated a total of 59 individuals — about a third of them kittens — in the Pine Ridge last spring.

“The population continually changes due to births, deaths and animals that migrate in or out of Nebraska,” Wilson said.

The management plan calls for maintaining cougar populations that are in balance with available habitat and other wildlife species, infrequent livestock depredation, and providing the public with scientifically based information about the big cats.

Although about 4 percent of Nebraska is considered suitable habitat for mountain lions, the cats have been documented in 42 of 93 counties since their return to the state was confirmed in 1991. They have established residence in the Pine Ridge, Wildcat Hills and Niobrara River valley.

david.hendee@owh.com, 402-444-1127

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