Nebraska’s second mountain lion hunting season in the Pine Ridge is three weeks away. In early January, two hunters killed two of the big cats in the state’s first season there. Hunting these animals has been contentious, even more so now that one state senator is vowing to ban mountain lion hunting in Nebraska.
The big predator cats, also called cougars or pumas, used to roam throughout the country until settlers nearly wiped them out. Seven years ago, camera traps captured the first solid evidence mountain lions were once again breeding in Nebraska.
Mountain lions, once completely eliminated from Nebraska, have made a comeback in recent years. Wildlife biologists believe many are connected to the population in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
(Map source: Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)
“We have an established population that we’ve learned more about through research in Pine Ridge area in the northwest corner of state. In that area we believe we have between 15-22 mountain lions,” said Sam Wilson, furbearer and carnivore program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Wilson said there’s also evidence of even smaller populations near Valentine and Scottsbluff. Mountain lions generally prefer forested, hilly areas to corn fields. After a 2012 law allowed mountain lion hunting in Nebraska, Game and Parks opened two of four hunting areas in the state to hunting this year: the Pine Ridge, where most of the lions live and hunting is very limited, and the Prairie Unit, most of the rest of the state, where mountain lions are rare and hunting tags are unlimited.
“Management of the species is to benefit the species,” said Scott Smathers, executive director of the Nebraska Sportsman’s Foundation. He said his group supports mountain lion hunting partly to protect the animals.
“If you travel to rural Nebraska, there’s a large number of folks that believe in the shoot, shovel and shut up procedure with mountain lions. We wanted to take that away, put it in the hands of folks who are educated, skilled and dedicated to the management of wildlife, and that’s Game and Parks,” Smathers said.
Nebraska Game and Parks offered unlimited mountain lion tags in the Prairie Unit (in red) in 2014.
The first season in the Pine Ridge Unit already closed. The second runs from February 15 - March 31.
100 mountain lion tags were drawn for that season but it only lasts until two males or one female lion are killed, whichever happens first.
The Upper Platte and Keya Paha units have not been opened to any mountain lion hunting in 2014.
(Map source: Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)
Smathers said mountain lions benefit from Game and Parks management because there’s more public awareness and money for research. At auction, one man paid more than $13,000 for one tag—much of which went to Game and Parks. The only other first season permit went to a 16-year old boy chosen by lottery. With the help of hunting dogs, each killed a male cat in early January.
“First of all, I don’t call it hunting, I call it butchery. I feel very strongly about it, and when I saw the picture of that animal in a tree, and this boy shooting him, it infuriated me. I was more outraged and enraged than I had been about anything than I can remember,” State Sen. Ernie Chambers said.
Chambers has introduced a bill to repeal the mountain lion hunt, and vowed to fight any Game and Parks legislation until they do so. Chambers quoted the poet William Blake, and said he doesn’t like to see living things killed:
“’A robin redbreast in a cage; puts all heaven in a rage.’ These animals have a place in this universe. I think when you kill these animals for sport or fun or to get trophies, that indicates something very wrong in a society,” Chambers said.
(Photo courtesy of UNL)
Director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Natural Resources, John Carroll was trained as a population biologist and has taught wildlife ecology for 25 years. He talked with NET News about the complex relationships between humans and big predators in an ecosystem. Below is an excerpt of the conversation:
What is the current thinking among wildlife professionals about the value of predators in an ecosystem?
Obviously they’re part of ecosystems, and they do contribute to top-down effects in term of population regulation and so on, but it’s extremely complicated depending on predator-prey relationships, predator communities, and what context that's in, within a particular predator community but also in the context of the prey community. And it can vary from place to place even when you’re talking about the same species. It's very complicated, which is why it’s the subject of so much research.
What has recent research shown about the impacts of these big predators?
The whole issue of predator-prey relationship and various levels of predators involved is pretty interesting. There's quite a bit of research, not just on direct predator effect: that wolves eat elk which obviously removes elk from the system. It's much more complicated than that, because wolves being present in an ecosystem can impact behavior. And larger predators can impact smaller predators. For example, there’s been a lot of great work done in the plains on the impact of coyotes on red fox, and how that fundamentally affects duck nesting. So in an area where you have coyotes, there are many fewer red fox, and duck nest success increases as a result of one predator being present which doesn't really eat duck nests but which removes another predator from that system.
How has it changed in recent years?
We’re starting to see more of the nuances and complexities of these relationships than we have in the past. In the case of a lot of big predators in the U.S., we’ve had this pretty long period of time after European settlement during which those big predators were basically removed from most of our ecosystems. Now, due to conservation efforts and changes in our landscape, many of those predators are increasing or have increased and are expanding in distribution, so you actually have these interactions to study which were restricted to very small situations for a very long period of time. We haven’t had that in the last 50 years of wildlife management in North America.
Game and Parks Deputy Director Tim McCoy acknowledged there are very diverse opinions regarding hunting predators or other species. That’s part of what complicates their work.
“Those are all valid opinions and philosophies people hold,” McCoy said. “We try to stay in that management standpoint, somewhere in the middle of that balance as an agency.”
Chambers also believes there’s an important ecological role of the big cats: “It’s more than poetry or sentimentality to say that nature has set up a very delicate, intricate balance, and if you take one piece out of that puzzle, the rest of it collapses. And that’s what’s happening in places like Nebraska,” Chambers said.
“Mountain lions certainly play an important ecological role,” Wilson of Game and Parks said. Mountain lions have positive impacts by preying on Nebraska’s abundant deer population, Wilson said. Research has shown big predators have numerous cascading impacts in an ecosystem, affecting crop damage, disease dynamics and even stream beds. Without big predators, deer and elk can over-consume riverbank vegetation and change the stream flow. But mountain lions have been gone from the state for more than a century.
“Nebraska is not the ecosystem it was 150 years ago. We don’t see buffalo running around out on the prairie anymore,” said population biologist John Carroll, professor of wildlife ecology and director of UNL’s School of Natural Resources.
Carroll agreed mountain lions belong in some parts of the state, but “when we start talking about mountain lions as functioning part of the Nebraska landscape, I think that biologists would be pretty skeptical that they’re going to be major contributors to ecosystem functions there.”
Mountain lions are territorial, solitary creatures that need room to roam. Tim McCoy of Game and Parks says hunting will help them keep the number of lions Nebraska can support in areas of suitable habitat and away from human conflict.
“We don’t have extremely large amounts of mountain lion habitat in the state. It’s very limited in its scope and extent,” McCoy said.
Mountain lions die in various ways, like being hit by cars. McCoy said they took that into account as they evaluated the mountain lion population to set hunting limits, as well as concerns from citizens. Wildlife biologist Carroll said those concerns add another complex layer to management:
“Mountain lions are really neat. Even people who don’t like them will find them very neat animals. But at the same time, they cover very large areas, they depredate cattle and eat deer, so there are lots of human activities in which they are not necessarily the best neighbors,” Carroll said.
Game and Parks said they’ll evaluate the mountain lion population to see how many hunting tags they’ll allow next year, as they do with all the species they manage. Carroll said the combination of science and social challenges of managing big charismatic wildlife species like mountain lions will only increase in the next century.
“We have more and more demands on food production that requires much more intensive management of land. You obviously get conflicts between land for human use and what we set aside for say, biodiversity. I think mountain lion is just the tip of the iceberg here in terms of how we deal with those problems into the future,” Carroll said.
The second Pine Ridge mountain lion hunting season begins February 15th.