LINCOLN—Gov. Dave Heineman on Friday vetoed a bill that would outlaw cougar and mountain lion hunting in Nebraska.

Lawmakers passed the bill (LB671) by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers on Monday. The Legislature authorized the hunting of mountain lions in 2012 as a way to control the population, and the state Game and Parks Commission scheduled three hunting seasons for mountain lions this year.

"Nebraskans expect responsible wildlife management. LB671 eliminates an important tool used to accomplish it," Heineman said in his veto message. "The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission should retain the ability to determine those management actions which are necessary to protect both the health and safety of our citizens and the wildlife in our state. Removing the agency's authority to manage mountain lions through hunting at this time is poor public policy."

Chambers, whose bill passed on a a 28-13 vote, said he was unsure if he had the 30 votes needed to override the veto.

"We'll find out," he said.

State law already allows people to kill mountain lions if they are threatening people or livestock. Sam Wilson, a wildlife biologist with Game and Parks, has said mountain lions usually avoid people and buildings, so they are presumed dangerous when they show up in urban areas or on farmsteads.

Mountain lions -- known as pumas, mountain cats, catamounts or panthers in other regions -- are native to Nebraska but were wiped out after the state was settled in the late 1800s. The first modern-day confirmation of a big cat in the state took place in 1991. Since then, the number of confirmed sightings has been growing.

In recent years, biologists have confirmed a small population of about 20 breeding mountain lions in the Pine Ridge area of northwestern Nebraska. Sightings in the region no longer are tallied, but those outside of the Pine Ridge are tracked.

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Chambers said there is such a small documented number of the animals in the state that the commission does not need to manage the population.

But Heineman said he feared the bill might be unconstitutional, since voters in 2012 approved a constitutional amendment saying "hunting, fishing, and harvesting of wildlife shall be a preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.”

"This provision of our Constitution is so new there is no clearly established law that tests its reach," the governor said. "However, LB671 could be challenged as infringing upon (the Constitution) because it precludes hunting which is now established as 'preferred means' of wildlife management. Even if LB671 is not unconstitutional, it fails to respect the will of Nebraska's citizens on this issue."

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