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After a four-year hiatus, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission will consider opening a mountain lion hunting season again.

The commission will hear testimony June 22 in Ogallala on the proposal to harvest up to eight lions in the Pine Ridge. According to a press release from the Game and Parks, staff is recommending the harvest for 2019, split between two sub-units in the Pine Ridge.

Recent studies place the mountain lion population at an estimated 59 animals across northwest Nebraska, with tallies determined through GPS collaring and scat-detection. That’s a sharp increase from the estimated 33 animals in the Pine Ridge just a few years ago. The state’s mountain lion management plan calls for the Game and Parks to maintain a “resilient, healthy, and socially acceptable mountain lion population” that remains in balance with other wildlife and the available habitat.

“The proposed season would allow the population to remain resilient and healthy, while halting growth or moderately reducing the population size. This would initiate a reduction of the population density in the Pine Ridge to one similar to that of other states that allow mountain lion hunting,” the Game and Parks release says.

The public meeting will take place at the Mid-Plains Community College Conference Room, 512 East B St. at 9 a.m.

The hunting season proposal is outlined as follows:

-- Hunting would only occur in the Pine Ridge area, which has an established population that can sustain a harvest.

-- Up to eight mountain lions could be harvested, with up to four of those being females.

-- Two sub-units are recommended in the Pine Ridge: a north sub-unit (north of U.S. Hwy. 20) and a south sub-unit (south of U.S. Hwy. 20). Sub-units are designed to distribute harvest throughout the Pine Ridge. Up to four mountain lions, and no more than two females, may be harvested in each sub-unit. Public lands are closed in the north sub-unit to focus harvest onto private land in Sioux and Sheridan counties, where the majority of landowner input has occurred. The south sub-unit includes public lands for expanded hunting opportunities.

-- Once four mountain lions, or two females, have been harvested in a sub-unit, the season in that sub-unit would close.

-- 320 permits would be issued in each sub-unit for a total of 640 total permits. Permits would be allocated by drawing.

-- An initial season is recommended to run from Jan. 1 through Feb. 28, 2019. The use of dogs would not be permitted during the initial season.

-- If the limits and/or sub-limits have not been reached in a sub-unit by Feb. 28, then a limited number (equal to the animals remaining in the limit) of permittees would be allowed to hunt with the aid of dogs in an auxiliary season. Permits for the auxiliary season would be granted to unsuccessful permittees from the initial season via a lottery. If the auxiliary season occurs, it would take place from March 15-31.

-- Baiting and trapping would not be allowed during either season.

The Game and Parks had its first mountain lion hunting season in 2014 after the Nebraska Legislature cleared the way for the agency to manage the animals as game. That hunting season, however, was followed by an unusually high number of non-hunting cougar fatalities (i.e. vehicle accidents) and the agency has elected to forego opening the species up to hunting since that time. Sen. Ernie Chambers has been a staunch opponent of mountain lion hunting, introducing bills in the Legislature to prohibit it.

Mountain lions called much of the state home, especially forested areas or in steep terrain, before the area was settled. However, they were extirpated as humans arrived on the landscape. One of the last reliable reports of mountain lion in Nebraska occurred in 1903 near Crawford, as hunting, trapping and a reduction in available prey created unsuitable conditions for the cougars.

The first confirmed report of a cougar in modern times came in 1991, when tracks and a deer kill were discovered in Dawes County and a female was killed in Sioux County. Two dozen occurrences were documented over the next five years, all of which were likely dispersing young males. It wasn’t until 2007 when a female lion and her kittens established that there was a resident, reproducing population of cougars returning to the Pine Ridge.

More recently, resident populations have also been established in the Wildcat Hills and the Niobrara River Valley near Valentine.

The lion population in the Pine Ridge is the most well-established and the focus of much of the research being done by Game and Parks. In 2010, the agency began conducting genetic surveys of lions in the Pine Ridge, using scat detecting dogs.

The scat collected determines the minimum number of lions present, and then mathematical principles are used to estimate the total population, Sam Wilson, the G&P’s furbearer and carnivore program manager, explained.

The agency has conducted the scat surveys every other year since 2010, with the surveys through 2015 indicating an estimated Pine Ridge population of 22-33 lions. That number nearly doubled after the 2017 count, to 59. That figure includes adults and kittens, Wilson said, without about one-third of the estimated total being kittens.

That Pine Ridge estimate was confirmed by a second research project in which the agency began capturing and collaring mountain lions with GPS collars in 2015.

In addition to confirming the estimated population, the GPS collars also help determine how the mountain lions impact elk, deer and bighorn sheep populations, how they responded to the 2012 fires, their home range size and habitat use and livestock depredation.

The GPS project will end in 2019, and detailed data analysis will be conducted at that time, but in general, it appears that deer are the primary prey for the cougars. The agency has visited a few hundred kill sites and found no livestock.

The agency’s mountain lion management plan allows for lions causing livestock depredation to be eliminated.

While some western states have high enough resident populations to have an annual hunting season, Nebraska’s cougar population is still young enough that the Game and Parks makes a decision on hunting the animals on a year-to-year basis. In order to make an informed decision, data is important.

“We want to know as much about the animals as we can,” Wilson said.

The Game and Parks Commissioners will vote on staff recommendations for the proposed hunting season following the June public hearing.

For more information on mountain lions in Nebraska, go to outdoornebraska.gov/mountainlions.

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