Photo courtesy of Carla Goranson
A mountain lion lounges in a tree at a Kimball residence in August 2012. The increasing mountain lion population in the state could lead Nebraska Game and Parks to authorize a limited hunting season for the big cats.
Last year’s widespread wildfires and a growing mountain lion population throughout the American West could prompt the first Nebraskan cougar-hunting season.
The Pine Ridge area in the northwestern part of the state is prime real estate for the estimated 22 big cats that live there, but after a third of the suitable habitat went up in smoke in 2012, the region is capable of supporting only about 18 of them.
The story is similar in the Niobrara valley. The valley was capable of supporting about 14 cougars before last summer’s wildfires took their toll. Now it can only support about 10.
The Nebraska Game and Parks commission is expected to consider regulations governing a cougar season during its meeting in Chadron on May 24. A bill approved by the Nebraska Legislature last year permits for a mountain lion hunting season once Game and Parks approves it.
Sam Wilson, State Game and Parks carnivore manager, said the fires displaced the creatures and destroyed the necessary tree and foliage cover they use for stalking their prey, but the growing Nebraskan populations of mountain lion prey, such as deer, could also draw them in from surrounding states.
“They can live in many different habitats. Those rougher, wooded areas, they definitely prefer that. But they can travel hundreds of miles with no problem,” he said.
Mountain lions were native to the state until the 1890s, when settlers and hunters poisoned and hunted them out. The next confirmed sighting of a cougar in Nebraska in modern times came in 1991 in the Pine Ridge. Since then, there have been 83 confirmed cougar sightings across the state.
In 2007, cougar kittens were found in the Pine Ridge, showing the predator is gaining a foothold in Nebraska. While no females or kittens have been documented outside of that area, Wilson said mountain lions from South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado are re-colonizing the region.
“We aren’t counting the ones we find in nearby areas, such as the Niobrara valley and the Wildcats, as resident populations until we find kittens there. We haven’t found any yet,” he said.
Recently, Wilson conducted genetic surveys in the Pine Ridge and in the Niobrara River valley to nail down a reliable estimate of the number and gender of mountain lions in the Panhandle. The study’s aim was to help biologists make informed wildlife management decisions.
With the help of specially trained dogs, the team searched ridges and creek bottoms twice for cougar feces, once in 2010 and once in 2012. The recovered samples identified 13 different mountain lions in 2010 15 in 2012. Five of the 2012 samples matched samples from the 2010 tests.
If the information from the surveys indicates a large enough cougar population, hunters could be bagging their first mountain lions as early as next winter.
The Game and Parks plan is to model the potential hunting season after South Dakota’s current regulations. South Dakota’s season started Dec. 26 and ends on March 31, or when 100 total mountain lions are taken, or when a limit of 70 females are taken.
“We have found there are enough in the Pine Ridge to merit a limited, sustainable harvest,” Wilson said.
David Hendee of the World-Herald news service contributed to this report.
Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 3:30 am
By BRANDON NELSON Staff Reporter | 0 comments