The Pine Ridge mountain lion population continues to grow.
“We believe we’ve seen an increase,” said Sam Wilson of the Nebraska Game and Parks.
Data collected last summer indicates there are nearly 60 animals living along the Pine Ridge, which stretches across the northwestern Panhandle. The count of 59 animals comes from the agency’s continuing genetic surveys and a collaring project.
Studies of the Pine Ridge mountain lion population from 2010-2015 indicated a population of 22-33 animals.
Approximately 30 percent of the animals are kittens, Wilson said. The larger number of animals is likely due to both breeding and new animals moving into the area from elsewhere.
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. The Pine Ridge population is the only one being studied closely enough to make population estimates, as the others are too new.
The Game and Parks adopted a mountain lion management plan in October 2017, which 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.
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.
Any hunting 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.
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 agency authorized the a mountain lion be euthanized last fall after it was determined the lion had killed to goats near Chadron. That instance was the third confirmed incident of livestock depredation by a mountain lion in modern Nebraska history.
Wilson said the Pine Ridge’s larger population will continue to be monitored, and the agency will take appropriate actions based on its management plan. That will include the consideration of a future hunting season, but all decisions will be made with the commission’s goal of a “resilient, healthy and socially acceptable” population in mind, he said.