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More mountain lions in Nebraska prompts calls for hunting

February 18, 2013 at 10:50 AM

HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) — Reported mountain lion sightings in Nebraska are far more common than actual sightings.

Much like UFOs, a good percentage of the sightings are simply a case of mistaken identity. A mangy coyote, stray dog, or even a bobcat can look uncannily like a big cat from a passing car.

But spotting one isn’t out of the question. The Hastings Tribune reports that just last week, a landowner in Pine Ridge in northern Sheridan County shot and killed an 88-pound female mountain lion after he and his family unsuccessfully tried to scare it away from their house

.Harvey Freetly of Hastings encountered a mountain lion locally during his morning commute to the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center in the fall of 2011. A scientist at the center, he said he could scarcely believe his eyes when the big cat bound out from a shelter belt across an open field just before 9 a.m. about 100 yards from Road C to Glenvil near the National Guard Training Center.

“I did a double-take on it,” he said. “At first, I just assumed it was a coyote when I saw it out of the corner of my eye. I wasn’t going to tell someone I saw a mountain lion until I was sure I saw a mountain lion.

“I stopped and I guess that’s what caused him to stop.

He just sat there on his haunches until he probably realized I’d seen him and took off running toward another shelter belt.”

Unfazed but intrigued by the sighting, he mentioned it to co-workers. None seemed particularly surprised by the news, he said. The following day, a colleague confirmed seeing a cougar in close proximity to Freetly’s sighting.

Les Johnson of Hastings has heard his fair share of what he believes are faux sighting tales. A professional game hunter, Johnson stars in a television series documenting his hunts that airs on Wild TV in Canada and the Sportsman’s Channel in the U.S. He has hunted and killed mountain lions in states where it is legal to do so, but never in Nebraska, where shooting them is prohibited unless they show aggression.

“A lot of people want to see one, so they can say, ‘Yeah, I saw one,’ ” Johnson said. “I’ve had people show me tracks and ask, ‘Is this a mountain lion?’ And I’ll tell them, ‘No, that’s a big dog.’ And they don’t want to hear that.”

Though he has yet to see any within state boundaries, he is certainly aware of their presence here. And with their population reportedly on the climb in the Pine Ridge area of north-west Nebraska, he fully supports efforts to initiate a limited harvest season there as early as next winter. Nebraska Legislature approved a bill in 2012 that would allow a mountain lion hunting season, subject to Game and Parks approval.

Sam Wilson, furbearer and carnivore program manager for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in Lincoln, places the estimated number of mountain lions residing in Pine Ridge at 22, up from 19 in 2010. The figure is based on a Game and Parks survey analysis of cat scat found in the area. The genetic analysis of the collected waste detected 22 unique individual cougars, including adult females, sub-adults, and kittens.

While these numbers may seem low, Wilson said they do not tell the whole story. Because mountain lions frequently cross state lines, there are likely many more cats wandering in and out of Nebraska at any given time, he said.

“The population isn’t an isolated population like the Florida panther,” he said. “It is connected to the entire western metapopulation that stretches all the way to the Pacific Ocean.”

For that reason, Game and Parks will recommend introducing a cougar harvesting season during its regularly scheduled meeting in Chadron on May 24. Details of its recommendation are still being formulated and may include the entire state or Pine Ridge area alone.

“Mountain lions are a game animal,” Wilson said. “They are harvested in every western state except for California, so the commission’s intention is to manage them like we do deer, elk, turkeys, and other game animals. We believe the population can sustain a small harvest.”

Johnson said he believes the increase in local numbers can be traced to restrictions placed on cougar hunting in South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado in recent years. Male mountain lions are migrating, following the Platte River in search of females. And with plenty of trees to hide in and deer to feed upon, an increase in numbers seems inevitable. For that reason, he supports a limited hunting season for mountain lions in Nebraska.

“They’re always looking for females and new territory,” he said. “Just like elks, they can adapt because they are a plains animal. I don’t think there’s that many, but we definitely have some mountain lions. We aren’t able to shoot them here, and what happens is the population just keeps going up. There’s no control, so it just keeps getting thicker and thicker.”

In the case of the mountain lion shot last week in Sheridan County, officials investigated the incident and found the physical evidence to be consistent with the landowner’s story. While they are still protected from hunting in Nebraska, mountain lions may be killed if they are threatening people or attacking livestock. Game and Parks said in a news release that it wants to document observations and asks people to report possible sightings.

In Freetly’s case, he said he didn’t bother reporting the cougar he saw near MARC.

“They’re natural around here,” he said. “If they’re showing up in St. Paul, Kearney, and Omaha, it’s not going to be strange to see one here. These cats have a huge range.”

He hasn’t seen one since. Nor does he expect to anytime soon.

“They don’t usually make the same kind of mistake twice,” he said. “It’s pretty rare to find a cat out in the open like that during the day. That’s not normal. I’m guessing he got chased out of the shelter belt where he was hiding.”

Wilson said isolated cats roaming the state are most likely sub-adult cougars driven from their home range by the dominant male cat there. Concentrations of wandering cats have settled near Scottsbluff and the Niobrara River, both favorable habitats for the breed.

“We’ve had a large number of confirmed lions in those areas, including females,” Wilson said. Enacting an annual harvest would “provide an opportunity for hunters in Nebraska” to do their hunting within state boundaries, he said.


Information from: Hastings Tribune,

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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