Managing Mountain Lions in Nebraska

Notice:

Prairie Fire Newspaper went on hiatus after the publication of the September 2015 issue. It may return one of these days but until then we will continue to host all of our archived content for your reading pleasure. Many of the articles have held up well over the years. Please contact us if you have any questions, thoughts, or an interest in helping return Prairie Fire to production. We can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you to all our readers, contributors, and supporters - the quality of Prairie Fire was a reflection of how many people it touched (touches).

Two mountain lion cubs play with an elk hide while their mother watches. (Thomas D. Mangelsen) 

By Michael Wunder

Over the past two decades, mountain lions have slowly regained footing in Nebraska. In fact, in a survey of 14 Midwestern states, Nebraska’s 67 documented sightings of mountain lions between 1990 and 2008 have made the state the leader of the pack. After having been hunted and driven from the state in the early 20th century, the majestic, elegant cats have gradually been coming back to roost since 1991. The key word there is gradual.

Currently an estimated 20 to 27 cats call the Pine Ridge area of the state home, and everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who’s seen one of the elusive cats. With the lions’ numbers increasing—and with more people coming into contact with them—it’s becoming apparent to Nebraska residents that the animals need to be managed, protected and conserved.

And what’s the best way to manage 20 mountain lions? Shooting them, at least according to Nebraska lawmakers and sportsmens’ organizations.

On April 13 the Nebraska Legislature unanimously passed Legislative Bill 928, allowing the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) to establish a mountain lion hunting season. And hunting would surely mean money for mountain lions.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Leroy Louden of Ellsworth, requires permits be distributed through a lottery of Nebraska residents, similar to the method used for bighorn sheep. Each applicant will pay $25 for a chance to bag a wild cat. An additional permit would be auctioned to out-of-state residents—or even out-of-country residents. Last year, Thomas Lemmerholz, of Heiligenhaus, Germany, paid $117,500 for his shot at taking down a bighorn sheep.

The establishment of a mountain lion season would undoubtedly find the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission with significantly more money for cougar management. This funding is essential for conservation, said Nebraska Sportsmen’s Association Executive Director Scott Smathers.

Smathers and his fellow outdoorsmen worked with Sen. Louden on LB 928, acknowledging that a growing population of lions needs to be controlled before they get out of hand.

“Wildlife needs to be managed,” Smathers said. “Any wildlife species can overabundance itself and become a nuisance or a pest.”

And though Smathers hasn’t witnessed or heard of an instance of “shoot, shovel, shut up”—the supposed maxim of cougar-shooting Nebraskans —he does worry, without proper management, that more mountain lions could succumb to such a fate.

“If we left it to the will of the people, that might occur,” he said.

Humans do tend to have a long history of wiping out species. Particularly large predators deemed threats to livestock or personal safety, like the Javan tiger, the Tasmanian tiger and the nearly exterminated gray wolves of the American West.

“In the big picture, predators are an easy target,” said Jay Tischendorf, former president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation. “There’s a long-standing animosity, and even hatred, toward predators in our genetic makeup.”

For Tischendorf, this animosity toward predators manifests itself in a mountain lion hunting season as much as it does in covert killings.

Tischendorf, currently a biologist-veterinarian at the American Ecological Research Institute in Great Falls, Mont., doesn’t oppose mountain lion hunting. He’s just not convinced the circumstances are right.

“I understand why people would want to [hunt],” Tischendorf said. Mountain lion numbers are too low, though, and their recolonization is just beginning. And though it’s likely the Game and Parks Commission would only allow a harvest of one to two cats, it doesn’t seem like an opportune time to declare open season on mountain lions.

Which the bill doesn’t call for, yet. The bill’s passing only allows for the establishment of a season, nothing more. Anytime soon, though, would be too early.

“Eventually, a hunting season may have merit,” he said. “I’m not sure this is the time.”

Prior to the bill’s approval, Tischendorf worried external forces would negatively impact decision making.

“Often, science is usurped by politics and other agendas,” Tischendorf said. Outside influences, like agricultural interests, ungulate lobbies or sporting lobbies, can put pressure on resource-management organizations like the NGPC, influencing “premature” action.

Such influences lead Tischendorf to be wary of state-controlled management when it comes to large predators. He used South Dakota’s Game, Fish, and Parks Department (SDGFPD) as an example of management-gone-awry, which he said pulled the “wool over people’s eyes” when it came to mountain lion hunting in that state.

Mountain lion and new moon at Miller Butte, Jackson Hole, Wyo. (Thomas D. Mangelsen)

In 2003 mountain lions were removed from the state’s threatened species list. An “experimental” season was established in 2005. The SDGFPD justified the season for a myriad of reasons: it would provide a “proactive” rather than “reactive” approach to handling mountains—minimizing the possibility of negative publicity for the animals; it would provide funding for management and would continue to support the state’s mortality-based mountain lion research.

In the past seven years, however, the amount of lions harvestable in South Dakota has increased with every season—despite studies by state biologists that found populations were decreasing, according to a report by the Mountain Lion Foundation. A number of organizations have made warnings about overhunting female lions, which orphans kittens and “disrupts natural behavior patterns.”

“The future of the mountain lion population in South Dakota is very grim,” Tischendorf said. A similar fate could await Nebraska lions, if not properly managed. Especially with such a small number of animals.

In 2003 when cougars were taken off the state’s threatened species list, South Dakota had an approximate mountain lion population of 150 animals. Nebraska’s population, as mentioned earlier, is currently estimated at 20 to 27. It’s no wonder Tischendorf thinks a Nebraska season is premature and why he questions whether natural resource agencies are prepared for the task.

“These large predators really are a test for natural resource agencies,” Tischendorf said. “[They are] the biggest challenge they may ever face. It isn’t easy.”

Adding to that challenge is a somewhat about-face in the way we think about predators. In the past decade the effect large predators have on their ecosystems has been reevaluated by the scientific community. Two 2004 studies, for example, found that the extirpation of wolves from Yellowstone National Park was followed by a gradual decrease in the diversity and health of the park’s ecosystem—including damage to the area’s aspen population.

The park’s elk, reveling in a state of tranquility, complacently gorged themselves for as long as they liked, wherever they liked, which led to a tremendous depletion of vegetation and diversity. The ecosystem’s gradual collapse began to reverse in the late 1990s and early 2000s—when wolves were reintroduced to the park.

Large predators like mountain lions or wolves create an “ecology of fear,” Tischendorf said, a diversity-spurring force that can greatly improve an area’s ecosystem. The presence of predators causes stress in prey populations, influencing their movement—a sort of shepherding effect. Prey animals, worried about becoming a meal, consistently relocate to avoid predators—which alters browsing patterns.

When prey populations—like deer in Nebraska, for example—aren’t able to, as Tischendorf puts it, “sit around all day in the optimal habitat,” their impact on the environment is limited. Overforaging decreases and a wider variety of plant life is able to flourish, which, in turn, fosters a wider variety of insect, bird and other animal life.

“It’s advantageous to the entire ecosystem,” Tischendorf said. Mountain lions in Nebraska, then, are playing an important role as an impetus for biological diversity. By merely being present they shepherd deer and other grazers, forcing them to abandon damaging browsing practices.

Smathers agrees, calling lions a “vital part” of the Nebraska ecosystem. And he thinks the best way to ensure the mountain lion population remains protected is through hunting, which controls populations and raises necessary funding.

“With protection of the species, there needs to be some harvest,” Smathers said. “They’re managed for the betterment of the species and the betterment of the people.”

There’s no question lions need to be managed in Nebraska, but at the moment a hunting season does seem premature. With such a small population, the Game and Parks Commission needs to proceed cautiously. A study on the lion population was planned for May, and its findings should prove immeasurably useful when it comes to deciding the role hunting and management will play in Nebraska’s relationship with such a valuable, essential animal that provides tremendous benefits to the state’s ecology.

Though the methods of mountain lion conservation are disputed, a common respect for the animal is apparent on both sides of the fence.

“The mountain lion is a majestic animal,” Smathers said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

For Tischendorf, the animal is even beyond majestic.

“They’re a priceless resource,” he said. “[Hunting them] should be considered a privilege.”

 

Image Credits: Thomas D. Mangelsen

 

Immigration in Nebraska