Along with much of the Midwest, mountain lions were a bountied predator and extirpated from Nebraska in the 1890's. One hundred years later, Nebraska confirmed its first mountain lion. The young lion likely dispersed from the small, newly-established breeding population in the neighboring Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming. Ideal mountain lion habitat is limited in Nebraska but as of 2014, research has indicated lions are breeding in the Pine Ridge and there may be 22 resident cats. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission initiated a sport hunting season on mountain lions for recreational enjoyment in January 2014. In addition, the Commission authorized unlimited killing of lions in the majority of the state.
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.
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.
"Eliminate provisions relating to hunting and killing of mountain lions"
Introduced by Senator Ernie Chambers on January 8, 2014, this bill would repeal Senator Louden's 2012 legislation that authorized mountain lion hunting in Nebraska.
For the latest text of this bill and current status, please visit the Nebraska Legislature's LB 671 page.
"a bill for an act relating to mountain lions"
On January 10, 2012 Senator LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth, NE introduced Legislative Bill (LB) 928, "a bill for an act relating to mountain lions." LB 928's statement of intent reads:
"LB 928 would authorize the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to provide permits for hunting mountain lions by allowing Nebraska residents to pay $25 for a chance to win a mountain lion hunting permit in a random drawing. Non-residents would be able to get permits through an auction."
The bill was passed with an emergency clause 49-0 on April 11, 2012, and was approved by the Governor on April 17, 2012. The emergency clause allows for the bill to take effect immediately upon signing by the governor. What this means is the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission now has the ability to issue hunting permits for mountain lions should they find it appropriate to hold a hunting season.
This bill allows, but does not require, the Game and Parks Commission to issue hunting permits for mountain lions in Nebraska. The bill calls for the agency to issue a drawing for residents and a non-resident auction to take place in order to obtain a hunting permit.
This is in similar fashion to the way NGPC conducts a tag lottery for bighorn sheep, the first season taking place in 1998. Residents pay an application fee to win a bighorn tag that is randomly drawn, while an auction is held for an additional tag for non-residents. The agency has also kept bighorn season closed on four occasions — 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2012 — to allow for herd recovery after hard years.
"a bill to permit killing mountain lions and other predatory animals"
On January 6, 2010, Senator LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth, NE introduced Legislative Bill (LB) 747 to classify mountain lions as predators.
The bill also allowed lions to be killed at any time, without prior permission, if believed to be stalking or killing livestock.
In addition, LB 747 codified the common policy that anyone who encounters a lion and fears for their personal safety or the safety of others may kill the lion without facing legal charges.
On April 14th, the bill was incorporated into LB 836 (mandatory deer depredation hunting season). The mountain lion section was amended to no longer list the species as a predator, but still allowed lions to be killed to protect people and livestock.
Due to an increase in mountain lions in neighboring states and initial sightings in Nebraska, in 1995, Nebraska legislators voted unanimously to pass Legislative Bill 529 and list the mountain lion as a game animal. While this prevented the unrestricted killing of any lion, bear, or moose in Nebraska, by "[classifying] the mountain lion as a game animal in 1995, it signaled to the Commission that hunting of the species should be allowed if the population was large enough to sustain a harvest" (NGPC Mountain Lion Hunting Season Recommendations, May 24, 2013).
LB 529 did not prohibit the killing of mountain lions that pose a threat to public safety or domestic animals.
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, and October 2012 to present.
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This data does not include mountain lions dying of natural causes (disease, infanticide, injury, starvation, or fire), nor do we know how many mountain lions are killed illegally each year.
Ideal mountain lion habitat is limited in Nebraska but in 2013, research indicated lions were breeding in the Pine Ridge and there may be 22 resident cats.
Apparently this is too many because the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has decided it is time to initiate a sport hunting season on mountain lions to control the budding population.
On January 1, 2014, Nebraska's inaugural lion hunt will begin. Up to four lions may be killed in the Pine Ridge before March 31st, and an unlimited number of lions can be hunted year round in the prairie region—which encompasses approximately 85% of the state.
Though promoted as a once in a lifetime event and offered at the dirt-cheap price of $15, only 395 Nebraskans applied for that state's first ever mountain lion hunt before the September 30th lottery deadline.
Nebraska's inaugural Pine Ridge lion hunt will be restricted to two hunters: a "lucky" lottery winner, and the "Big Bucks" winner of a special permit auctioned off by the Nebraska Big Game Society. In an effort to justify that action, proceeds from the auction will be given to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission reportedly for mountain lion conservation, management and research.
Pine Ridge's inaugural season will go from January 1 through February 14th, or when two males or one female lion is killed. The hunt area's second season with an additional 100 lottery winners will commence on February 15th, and end on March 31st, or when two males or one female lion is killed.
The Prairie Unit, which covers about 85 percent of Nebraska, will open its lion hunting season on January 1st. It will run through the end of the year, with no restriction on the number of hunters, and lions killed in this hunt area will not be counted against the quota.
Last Update: February 3, 2014
Thank you to Tom Batter for researching and writing much of this Nebraska page.