Though mountain lions once roamed the hills and forests of Nebraska, persecution at the hands of humans has driven them locally extinct in the state.
Fear and misinformation were the main forces driving this extirpation.
But attitudes have changed since the early 1900s and there's hope for the future.
If we support mountain lion-friendly legislation, open space conservation, and preserve corridors connecting potential habitat, we could reverse this situation and bring mountain lions back home to Nebraska.
Historically mountain lions (Puma concolor) were part of the native fauna of Nebraska, more abundant in the western half than in the eastern half of the state. Like many predators before them, mountain lions were extirpated from Nebraska in the 1890s and early 1900s, the last authenticated record occurring in 1903.
According to archived USDA Farmers' Bulletins, some counties in Nebraska continued to offer a $3 bounty for any lion killed ($6 for a wolf and $3 for a coyote) well into the 1920's, despite the species having already been wiped out.
During the following decades local newspapers continued to report sightings of mountain lions in various parts of Nebraska, yet none could be verified by qualified individuals. Although these semi-annual reports were made, the first modern confirmation in Nebraska did not occur until 1991 when a deer hunter fatally shot a female mountain lion outside of Harrison near the Wyoming-Nebraska border.
As of 2013, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) has estimated that 22 individual lions call the Pine Ridge region of northwest Nebraska home.
These numbers are based on scat dog surveys conducted by NGPC biologist Sam Wilson in 2010 and 2012 to determine genetics, gender, and population size. The actual total could be anywhere between 16 and 37 individuals according to Wilson. The 2010 survey identified 13 individual lions (8 male, 5 female), while the 2012 survey detected 15 individuals (6 M, 9 F). Five of the 2012 lions were "recaptures" or "re-detections" from the 2010 survey.
This brings the total individual lions detected to 23. Two females were identified as breeding. Scat surveys were also conducted in the Niobrara River Valley, but it is unclear if the scat collected there is included in the agency's estimate of population size.
On March 2nd, 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared the eastern cougar to be extinct. Mountain lions used to roam the entire country, coast to coast, and the eastern cougar subspecies (Puma concolor couguar) occupied the northeast region. By the 1850s, hunting pressure had made mountain lions rare in the eastern two thirds of the continent. Mountain lions were functionally extinct in the Midwest by 1860, the mid-Atlantic states by 1882, in the south coastal states by 1886, in central Appalachia by 1900, and in New England by 1906.
In 1973, Congress passes the Endangered Species Act, designed to protect critically imperiled species from extinction as a 'consequence of economic growth and development untendered by adequate concern and conservation.' Eastern cougars were among the first species listed as a federally endangered subspecies under the Act. Before recent sightings, the last known mountain lion in Nebraska was killed in 1890.
In 1890, Nebraska reportedly killed its last native mountain lion. The species was extirpated from the state for one hundred years. Eventually, dispersing individuals from remaining populations in western states recolonized the Black Hills of South Dakota, and then expanded into Nebraska's Pine Ridge.
We are in the process of obtaining mortality data from 1990-2000, October 2012 to December 2013, and January 2015 to present.
|USDA Wildlife Services||0|
|Illegal / Accidental||5|
This data does not include mountain lions dying of natural causes (disease, infanticide, injury, starvation, or fire), nor do we truly know how many mountain lions are killed illegally each year.
In late 2012, research indicated the state might have as many as 22 resident lions. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission determined the lion population had grown "large enough to sustain a harvest" in the Pine Ridge area.
Mountain lion hunting tags were sold in 2013 through a lottery system for the state's first lion hunt. Though promoted as a once in a lifetime event and offered at the dirt-cheap price of $15, only 395 Nebraskans applied for the chance to hunt a mountain lion.
On January 1, 2014, Nebraska's inaugural lion hunt began. Up to four lions were authorized to be killed in the Pine Ridge before March 31st, and an unlimited number of lions could be hunted year round in the prairie region—which encompasses approximately 85% of the state—and would not count towards the quota.
Nebraska's first Pine Ridge hunt (Jan 1-Feb 14) had a quota of 2 males or 1 female lion, allowed the use of hounds, and was restricted to two hunters: a "lucky" lottery winner, and the "Big Bucks" winner of a permit auctioned off by the Nebraska Big Game Society. In an effort to justify that action, proceeds from the auction were to be given to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission reportedly for mountain lion conservation, management and research.
Pine Ridge's initial season lasted less than 48 hours due to both men shooting male cats on January 2nd. The hunt area's second phase began on February 15th and allowed 100 lottery winners their chance to kill one of the few remaining lions. The quota for the second session was also 2 males or 1 female lion.
After their meeting on January 15, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Director Jim Douglas announced there will be no mountain lion hunting season in 2015. Claiming the Commission's decision was not a result of the controversy generated by Nebraska's inaugural lion hunt, Director Douglas indicated they need to review the situation and there might be a mountain lion hunt in 2016.
At the beginning of the 2014 lion hunting season, the Commission estimated Nebraska might have 22 resident mountain lions.
Last year, there were 16 documented mountain lion deaths in Nebraska, including five killed legally by hunters; four killed legally because people felt threatened; three incidentally trapped; two killed by vehicles; and two taken illegally. Ten of the mountain lions killed were females, which Director Douglas cited as a factor in the Commission's decision to not have a hunting season this year.
In addition, the Commission budgeted $60,000 for radio collars, trail cameras and three years of scat surveys to "better understand and manage the mountain lion population."
There is no indication that State Senator Ernie Chambers plans to stop his legislative efforts (LB 127) to remove the Commission's authority to hold mountain lion hunts.
Last Update: January 23, 2015
Thank you to Tom Batter for researching and writing much of this Nebraska page.