LINCOLN — The state game commission has taken the first step toward resuming mountain lion hunting, a move sure to whip up a debate about managing the big cats.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission will hold a public hearing June 22 during a commission meeting in Ogallala, in western Nebraska. The hearing will be held at 9 a.m. at 512 E. B St., which is a Mid-Plains Community College conference room.
In January, a commission biologist suggested that it was time to resume mountain lion hunting in the state because the population had increased. It was estimated that a year ago, there were 59 adult and kitten mountain lions in the state’s top lion habitat, in northwest Nebraska’s Pine Ridge area.
Holding a public hearing, which was announced Friday, is the first step in resuming a hunt, which has drawn controversy in the past.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha has unsuccessfully sought to ban mountain lion hunting in the state, calling it cruel and unnecessary. Wildlife biologists, meanwhile, maintain that hunting is an effective way to manage the population of the big cats and avoid losses of livestock and conflicts with humans.
The state’s first, and only, mountain lion hunt was in 2014. Three males and two females were taken in northwest Nebraska.
But hunting was called off in 2015 after 11 other big cats were killed in traps, in collisions with vehicles or by other means. In 2016, a hunting season was suspended to allow researchers to better determine the species’ population. In 2017, there wasn’t sufficient evidence to seek a hunting season.
The proposed regulations, released Friday, call for hunting to be allowed in January and February of 2019, with a quota of taking only four mountain lions, and no more than two females. A total of 320 permits would be sold via a lottery.
Hunting would be allowed in two units in Dawes, Sheridan, Box Butte and Sioux Counties, and would cease once the quota is reached. If the quota isn’t reached, the proposed regulations allow for a second, “auxiliary” season to be held in March to fill the quota.
The use of dogs, traps or bait would be prohibited during the regular season but allowed during the auxiliary season.
The proposed regulations would be the subject of a vote by the game commission, and then would have to be approved by the State Attorney General’s Office and Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Mountain lions were first confirmed to have returned to the state in 1991. Since then, they have been documented in 42 of the state’s 93 counties, including in the metro area. One was tranquilized in the Old Mill area of Omaha in 2003. As recently as March 2017, one of the big cats was spotted in west Omaha.
Only about 4 percent of Nebraska is considered suitable habitat for mountain lions. Beyond the Pine Ridge, the cats are most commonly found in the Wildcat Hills of the state’s Panhandle and in the Niobrara River valley of north-central Nebraska.
Since the last lion hunt, the State Legislature, at Chambers’ urging, created a “mountain lion conservation” license plate for vehicles that has become a best-seller. Chambers has said that the popularity of the plates, first released in 2016, show that people support his efforts to ban hunting. But some purchasers have said they bought the plates because they are more attractive than the state’s regular license plate.