With established populations of mountain lions in three areas of the state, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission now has adopted a formal management plan to guide the agency’s long-term approach to the big cats.
The plan was approved by the commission in late October and spells out the agency’s goals for mountain lions in the state. It includes hunting seasons when the agency deems them appropriate, contingencies for predation of livestock or threatening behavior against a human or livestock animal, as well as protections of the state’s bighorn sheep population.
Cougars once populated much of Nebraska, but unregulated hunting and trapping of their prey forced them out of the state in the early 1900s. As prey such as elk, bighorn sheep and turkeys have returned, so, too, have the mountain lions. The first modern-day confirmed presence of cougar in Nebraska came in 1991 in Dawes and Sioux counties. From 1991 to 2006, 24 occurrences of mountain lions were documented, but it wasn’t until 2007 that a resident population was confirmed.
The Pine Ridge, Wildcat Hills near Scottsbluff and the Niobrara River Valley near Valentine all appear to now have reproducing, resident animals. Genetic surveys done from 2010-2015 indicate that the Pine Ridge could have as many as 33 mountain lions. The remaining two populations are too new to determine animal estimates.
The cats were declared a game animal by the Nebraska Legislature in 1995, protecting them under Game Law, and in 2012, the Unicameral provided the commission with the authority to issue permits and create regulations for a hunting season. The Nebraska Game and Parks has authorized only one hunting season to date, in 2014, but the new management plan preserves that as an option in the future.
Any such season in the future will be determined by population size, demographics and the suspected resiliency of the population to a harvest. Future harvest seasons will also be designed to minimize the orphaning of kittens, and no hunting of spotted mountain lions or a group of two or more of the cats traveling together will be allowed.
Because mountain lion territory often overlaps with the range of reintroduced bighorn sheep herds, the management plan also allows the commission to remove a lion known to target bighorn sheep in a way that could jeopardize the existence of the sheep herd. The director of the commission must authorize the removal of any lion suspected of targeting bighorn sheep.
In compliance with state law, the plan also continues to allow individuals to kill lions if they are stalking, attacking or showing unprovoked aggression toward a person, or if they are stalking, killing or consuming livestock. The commission is also able to issue a landowner permit if predation is suspected.
The commission’s overall goal, according to the plan, is to “maintain resilient, healthy, and socially acceptable mountain lion populations that are in balance with available habitat and other wildlife species over the long term.”
The plan will be reviewed every five years.