Nebraska hopes to manage mountain lions like any other game animal. (Courtesy Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)
Outdoor officials in Nebraska are set to vote on draft regulations for a limited mountain lion hunting season in the state.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission will vote May 24 in Chadron, Neb. The proposed season would allow hunters to kill three mountain lions during two open seasons in the Pine Ridge area, an escarpment between the Niobrara River and the White River in the far northwestern corner of the state.
"The commission intends to manage mountain lions like we do other game animals like deer, elk and bighorn sheep, and that may include a limited harvest," Sam Wilson, a mountain lion expert for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, told the Journal-Star in Lincoln, Neb.
The Nebraska legislature passed a bill in January 2012 to allow a mountain lion hunting season in the state once the Game and Parks Commission approved.
Regulated mountain lion hunting seasons are currently held in 10 states - Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming - as well as two Canadian provinces, Alberta and British Columbia.
Due to hunting, lack of prey and decreased habitat, the population of the mountain lion, or cougar, declined dramatically after 1900, leaving the remaining big cats isolated almost exclusively to areas west of the Rockies.
More than a century after they were eradicated in the middle portions of the United States, mountain lion numbers are growing in the Midwest. The territorial and wandering nature of the species, especially among young males, has allowed them to spread across 14 states in recent years.
During a recent Nebraska Game and Parks Commission meeting in Omaha, Wilson said mountain lions from South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado are moving into Nebraska.
"Mountain lions are walking back into Nebraska from neighboring states,'' he said. "That barbed-wire fence on the border does not stop a mountain lion."
Mountain lions are native to Nebraska but were wiped out by early settlers and essentially vanished after 1890. The next sighting did not occur until 1991, when one was shot by a hunter near Harrison in Sioux County, just a few miles from where the last one had been killed a century ago.
Nebraska has listed mountain lions as a game animal since 1995 but currently does not allow them to be hunted. State law does allow people to kill mountain lions if they stalk, attack or show unprovoked aggression.
Thirty-six mountain lions have been shot, found dead or run over in Nebraska since 1991, Wilson said.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission estimates the Pine Ridge area has an established breeding population of 22 mountain lions, with habitat to support 27.
Under draft regulations for the hunting season, which could be changed at the May 24 meeting, 100 permits would be issued by lottery to Nebraskans and one additional permit through an auction also open to non-residents. Auction proceeds would be labeled for mountain lion management and research.
In the season's initial parameters, hunting would be allowed with firearms and archery would be allowed only parts of Box Butte, Dawes, Sheridan and Sioux counties north of the Niobrara River. The seasons are slated for Jan. 1-Feb. 9 and Feb. 15-March 31.
A total of three mountain lions could be taken over both seasons, but only one could be a female, Wilson said.
"Whenever a female is harvested, the season ends," Wilson told the Journal-Star. "But if they are two males (harvested first), the last one can be a male or female."
Hunters will be required to check in with the commission daily to see whether the season is still open.
Mountain lions prey mostly on white-tailed deer in Nebraska. Males can reach about 8 feet and weigh between 100 and 150 pounds. Females are smaller.
Wilson said there have been no incidents in the state in which a mountain lion has attacked a human.