More hunting and wildlife coverage from The World-Herald: Omaha.com/outdoors
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LINCOLN — Nebraska's new hunting season on mountain lions could produce unintended and unwanted consequences, said a recognized expert on large predator research.
For starters, hunting small populations of cougars like Nebraska's runs the risk of wiping the big cats off the landscape, said Robert Wielgus, a wildlife professor at Washington State University. Trophy hunting also could trigger conditions that lead to more conflict between the cougars, livestock and people.
Top officials with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission defended the season, saying it was carefully formulated to maintain or slightly reduce the state's breeding population of mountain lions. It also was meant to address safety concerns raised by some members of the public.
Compared to Washington, however, Nebraska is just a kitten when it comes to the controversial and political arena of mountain lion hunting.
The issue threatens to snarl the current session of the Nebraska Legislature. Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers has vowed to make the repeal of cougar hunting his priority, accusing the commission of endorsing “butchery” to cash in on lotteries and big-dollar auctions of hunting permits.
The commission this month opened its first cougar season, which allows the killing of up to four cats from a designated hunting unit in the Pine Ridge of northwest Nebraska. That's where biologists have the best data on a breeding population of 15 to 22 of the animals.
In a career spanning three decades of research on large carnivores, Wielgus said he has never heard of a state allowing hunting of such a small population of cougars. A total of 16 states allow some form of cougar hunting or shooting. He said the Nebraska season harkens to the days when the goal of mountain lion hunts was to eradicate rather than conserve.
“Hunting a population of less than 30 animals is just crazy,” he said. “It's like anything can happen. They can blink out. It's just like rolling the dice.”
Officials with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission defended the season, which has so far resulted in the killing of two male cougars. Commissioner Mark Spurgin of Paxton, who served on a committee that drafted season recommendations, said there was no ulterior motive to eradicate the cats.
“That wasn't our idea at all,” he said. “We just want to manage them to the point that they are there, but there aren't too many of them.”
Mountain lions are native to Nebraska, but unregulated hunting, trapping and poisoning forced their retreat to higher-altitude Western states for nearly a century. Migrant cougars from South Dakota and Wyoming began filtering back to Nebraska in the early 1990s.
In addition to the Pine Ridge, the commission believes small populations may be present in the southern Panhandle and along the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska. Because the agency lacks population data for those areas, hunting is not allowed there.
But the agency has opened year-round hunting of mountain lions in the rest of the state for holders of a $15 permit. The rationale is that the flatter, less-forested landscape is less cougar friendly, so any cats passing through are likely young dispersing males.
The well-documented tendency of young males to wander plays a central role in the Washington State University research conducted by Wielgus and other scientists.
Young males are forced out by large, mature males that zealously guard their territories, and they are looking for females with which to breed. By conducting radio-collar studies of cougars, Wielgus and his colleagues have found that when a dominant male dies, potential replacements quickly arrive to fill the void.
“When you kill one big old male, two or three young guys show up at the funeral,” Wielgus said.
Teenage cougars often disrupt the social order established and enforced by the old male, which would have never tolerated their presence in his territory. Young males are known to prey on kittens, for example, in an effort to force mother cats to go back into heat. So their arrival on the scene often prompts females and their young to relocate, Wielgus said.
Such movement can lead to more big cat encounters with people.
Mature mountain lions don't reach an advanced stature by preying on cattle, sheep or, for that matter, the random Lhasa apso tethered to the back patio. In other words, they can co-exist with humans, who, unless they know what to look for, will never know cougars are lurking about, Wielgus said.
“The bottom line, if you're a rancher in a lightly hunted population, you're dealing with one male cougar,” he said. “If you're a rancher in a heavily hunted population ... now you've got three guys you've got to deal with.”
Based on 15 years of research, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, Wielgus recommends setting hunting seasons with the goal of killing no more than 14 percent of the cougar population. He arrived at 14 percent because that's the “intrinsic growth” of a cougar population with adequate prey and habitat. Washington has adopted his approach.
Nebraska's season allows for the killing of up to four males in the Pine Ridge, but it ends as soon as one female is killed. The first two males, both mature animals, were hunted with the assistance of tracking dogs. The remaining permit holders can't use dogs, which dramatically reduces the chances of shooting a cougar.
If hunters reach the quota of four cougars, it would represent either 27 percent or 18 percent of the population, based on the commission's estimated range of 15 to 22 cats.
So far, there have been no confirmed reports of mountain lions preying on livestock or pets in Nebraska, said Tim McCoy, the commission's deputy director. And while a number of big cats have been shot because they were close to dwellings or hunters, no one has been attacked.
The commission has a policy that allows mountain lions to be killed if they pose a threat to human safety or property. Nationally, fewer than 150 mountain lion attacks on humans have occurred over the past century.
McCoy said he might agree with concerns about hunting a small population if it were isolated, but that's not the case in the Pine Ridge. Biologists know that the cats that recolonized the area immigrated from Wyoming and South Dakota.
The results of the season will be analyzed before recommendations for future seasons are offered, McCoy said.
“We're going to manage mountain lions to try to match the habitat,” he said. “Manage them in a balanced way with all of the demands of the public.”
Spurgin, the commissioner from Paxton, is a farmer and cattle feeder who said he probably once would have argued for the removal of all mountain lions. After serving on the commission, he said he now believes they can occupy their place in the ecosystem with careful management.
But he's still sympathetic to those who say they feel threatened living near mountain lions. The majority of those in his district strongly support the hunting season, Spurgin said.
“I argue if you feel threatened, you are threatened,” he said.