LINCOLN — Nebraska's inaugural mountain lion hunting season next year will put the big cats under the gun across most of the state.
The border-to-border hunting season is an expanded feature of regulations that state Game and Parks commissioners initially considered two months ago.
At that time, Game and Parks wildlife biologists recommended a cougar season limited to the Pine Ridge in northwest Nebraska. It's the only area of the state known to have a reproducing population of the big cats.
The revised proposal commissioners approved Friday in Lincoln allows hunters to kill up to four mountain lions in the Pine Ridge — one more than proposed earlier — and opens most of Nebraska to unlimited, year-round hunting.
Commissioner Mark Spurgin of Paxton said the statewide season is needed. He said the occasional presence of mountain lions crossing the state has changed the way of life of some rural Nebraskans. He said some people no longer allow their children to be outside in the evening.
“We are moving in the right direction,'' he said.
There have been 92 confirmed sightings of cougars outside the Pine Ridge population since 1991.
Joe Herrod of Lincoln, who owns farmland near Paxton, said almost all wildlife species deserve management and conservation.
“Lions, however, don't belong in that category in Nebraska,'' he said. “We got along fine without them for 100 years. We don't want them, don't need them.''
Commissioners heard and read requests by dozens of others not to expand hunting beyond the Pine Ridge.
Ron Klataske of Manhattan, Kan., manager of the Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary near Bassett, Neb., said he didn't oppose cougar hunting in Nebraska but appealed to commissioners to reject statewide hunting.
He said the “unlimited, senseless killing'' of mountain lions throughout most of the state would target cats traveling between areas of suitable habitat or dispersing to better ranges in other states.
An estimated 15 to 22 mountain lions live year-round in the Pine Ridge. Four to six of them are believed to be adult females, biologists say.
Nebraska will have four mountain lion management units. Three would be the Pine Ridge, Keya Paha (Niobrara River valley) and Upper Platte (Wildcat Hills). A fourth area, known as the Prairie Unit, would consist of the rest of the state.
Two Pine Ridge seasons would be held in January through March because it's the time of year females are least likely to have dependent young that may be orphaned if the mother is killed.
During the first Pine Ridge season, one hunting permit would be issued by lottery to a Nebraska resident, and one permit would be auctioned to a resident or nonresident for hunting from Jan. 1 through Feb. 14. Both may hunt with dogs.
Hunting would continue from Feb. 15 to March 31 by 100 others who won permits in a lottery for Nebraskans only. No dogs are allowed.
In each Pine Ridge season, hunters may kill no more than two cougars total. No more than one of the cats may be female. The seasons close immediately when one female is killed or the overall quota is reached.
Hunters are required to quickly report kills. Pine Ridge hunters also are required to check daily before going into the field to be certain the season remains open.
The Keya Paha and Upper Platte units will be closed to hunting because no resident cougar populations have been documented there.
Game and Parks biologists said the new objective for the Pine Ridge is to provide hunting opportunities while allowing a slight to moderate reduction in mountain lion population. In May, biologists said they crafted a Pine Ridge-only proposal that would have allowed the cougar population there to remain at or near its current level.
The objective of the new statewide Prairie Unit is to provide unlimited hunting opportunities in areas of the state unlikely to establish a breeding population of mountain lions.
Prairie Unit hunters must obtain a permit at least 24 hours before shooting a cougar. Hunting with dogs is allowed only from Jan. 1 to March 31 in the unit.
The use of traps or bait will be prohibited anywhere in the state.
The application period for the Pine Ridge Unit is Sept. 3 to Sept. 30. The nonrefundable application fee is $15.
Applications for the Prairie Unit will be accepted Dec. 16, 2013, through Dec. 31, 2014. Permits will cost $15.
The debate over a cougar hunting season anywhere in Nebraska generated dozens of letters, emails and phone calls to wildlife officials and commissioners.
Opponents, including some who asked the commission to study the issue further, included Audubon Nebraska, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Mountain Lion Foundation and individuals from across the country.
Herrod, who supported the hunting season, said none of his neighbors wants mountain lions near their ranches, livestock, pets, children or grandchildren.
“I consider the mountain lion to be an elusive, nocturnal and very dangerous predator,'' he said. “We all feel that landowners should have the right to kill these large predators at any time with any method.''
Since 1991, there have been no documented Nebraska cases of mountain lions attacking humans. Several cougars have been shot by people who felt threatened by the animals, already legal under Nebraska law.
Stacey Sweeney of Chadron said a hunting season is “a late start but good.''
“We need to chase these animals and make them afraid of us,'' he said.
The commission vote to create a mountain lion season was unanimous.
Mountain lions are native to Nebraska but vanished in the 1890s. The first confirmed sighting of a cougar in Nebraska in modern times was in 1991 in the Pine Ridge. The first cougar kittens were documented in the Pine Ridge in 2007, indicating a resident population.
The Legislature approved a bill last year allowing for a mountain lion hunting season at the discretion of Game and Parks officials.
The commission's Big Game Committee of Spurgin, Kent Forney of Lincoln and Mark Pinkerton of Wilber worked with the agency's wildlife biologists to prepare the hunting season proposal.