Though mountain lions once roamed the hills and forests of Nebraska, persecution at the hands of humans drove them locally extinct. If we support open space conservation and preserve corridors connecting potential habitat, we could reverse this situation and bring mountain lions back home to Nebraska.
Although mountain lions may be physically capable of living in an area, human activities and attitudes could keep them from reestablishing a population there.
Fragmentation, sport hunting practices, and intolerant communities can wipe out mountain lions from any area.
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Before European settlement, mountain lions roamed throughout Nebraska and beyond. Perceived conflict with livestock, heavy hunting pressure, conversion of wildlands to agriculture and other forms of habitat loss nearly drove Nebraska's mountain lions locally extinct. Since the early 2000s, there has been evidence trickling in that mountain lions may be making a slow and incremental comeback to parts of Nebraska.
A study by LaRue (2007) estimates that there are 8,609 square kilometers of mountain lion habitat in Nebraska. Within some of this area, there appears to be a small breeding population in the northwest corner of the state in the Pine Ridge area. Wildlife officials believe there may be a couple dozen cats living in the hills there. There is also evidence of even smaller populations near Valentine and Scottsbluff.
The Pine Ridge region of Northwest Nebraska is a rugged escarpment, or a long clifflike ridge, that juts out from the high plains. Located in Nebraska's northwest corner and passing through Sioux, Dawes, and Sheridan counties, the Pine Ride is an arc-shaped formation about 100 miles long. Its width ranges from four to twenty miles across, providing a few hundred square miles of Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa scopulorum) forests.
Because mountain lions prefer rough wooded areas with abundant prey, the Pine Ridge is a favorable ecoregion for mountain lion inhabitance.
In relation to the rest of Nebraska, the high rate of mountain lion occurrence in the Pine Ridge is not shocking due to proximity and similarity of habitats to mountain lion populations in neighboring states, particularly South Dakota.
The natural features of the Pine Ridge are similar to the Black Hills where a rebounding mountain lion population is established 50 miles to the North. The topography of the Pine Ridge is characterized by high cliffs, buttes, and pine-covered hills.
Additionally, the Pine Ridge contains Nebraska's largest population of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), rich populations of mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), some white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and increasing numbers of elk (Cervus canadensis); other species which are typically consumed by mountain lions such as porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum) and wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) are also present.
A small area of suitable habitat for mountain lions also exists in the Niobrara River Valley, the next likely re-colonization range for lions in Nebraska. The Niobrara River flows out of Wyoming southeast into northwestern Nebraska. The river runs adjacent to the Pine Ridge in Sioux County, presenting an attractive corridor for a dispersing lion.
The region is a unique mix of vegetation and wildlife. Flora from northern boreal, rocky mountain, and eastern deciduous forests as well as prairie species from eastern tallgrass, mixed-grass, and western shortgrass prairies blend along the river's ridges and slopes. Many eastern, western, and northern plant and animal species converge at the edge of their distributional range throughout this area.
Inhabitant lion prey species include free-ranging elk, white-tailed deer, and mule deer among smaller prey animals such as turkey.
Nebraska experienced the worst wildfire year on record in 2012 with some 500,000 acres being burned — double the total acres of the previous record year. The hardest hit areas in the state were both the Pine Ridge and the Niobrara River Valley, which burned in the late summer and early fall. These areas lost considerable amounts of suitable mountain lion habitat, the Pine Ridge losing as much as 33 percent.
According to Sam Wilson in an interview with the Omaha World-Herald, biologists estimated the Pine Ridge capable of supporting around 27 mountain lions with the Niobrara River Valley capable of supporting about 14. Post-fire, these areas are capable of only supporting an estimated 18 lions in the Pine Ridge and about 10 in the Niobrara Valley, Wilson said.
Although it is known that lion habitat has been diminished, NGPC still feels there is evidence supporting a growing mountain lion population. The population numbers, mentioned in the first section of this page, are from pre-fire surveys however.