CHADRON, Neb. — Cougars 2, Hunters 0.
The second round of Nebraska's inaugural mountain lion hunting season opened during the weekend with the home team cougars skunking dozens of big-game hunters from across the state.
Among those keeping their powder dry was Shane Schlager of Chadron, who scouted for tracks in known cougar haunts for a few hours without success. He retreated with plans to try again today.
“Everybody's excited about the hunt, but you have to be realistic,'' he said. “The odds are slim to none of even seeing one.''
The state's new cougar hunting season quietly continued Saturday and Sunday as Schlager and an unknown number of the 99 other Nebraskans who won permits in a lottery took to the Pine Ridge.
The two days of hunting could have reduced the Pine Ridge's estimated mountain lion population of about two dozen by two, but all of the region's big cats survived to live another day. They face 43 more hunting days ahead until the season ends.
Round one in the Pine Ridge — where the only two hunters with permits each took a cougar in January in hunts aided by hounds — sparked outrage among some people 424 miles away, in Lincoln.
That's where State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha vows to repeal the law that authorized the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to conduct cougar hunts. Chambers' Legislative Bill 671 advanced last week to the full Legislature for debate.
While the issue simmered in Lincoln, hunters headed for parts of four counties in northwest Nebraska. They had a sense of urgency. The cougar quota is two males or one female. The season ends immediately when either threshold is reached.
Schlager, 47, said the limit is appropriate.
“We're not going to hurt the population by killing four lions,'' he said. “There's no way we can hurt this population. They're reproducing every year.''
Schlager said he and many other Pine Ridge residents believe that there are far more mountain lions in the region than Game and Parks' scientific estimate of 22.
Rancher Lance Scherbarth, 68, of Chadron said the hunting season is needed to protect mountain lions. He was one of the 100 who received hunting permits in the Game and Parks lottery.
“Old ranch families in this area won't put up with an unlimited supply of mountain lions,'' he said. “They'll flat disappear. People will get rid of them.''
Landowners define the strategy as “shoot, shovel and shut up.''
Unless done in self-defense against a threatening cougar or to protect livestock, killing a mountain lion is illegal in Nebraska without a hunting permit, because they are classified as game animals.
“If people think the state is trying to manage them, it'll seem like they've got them under control and people won't pester them near as much,'' Scherbarth said. “But we have to keep pecking away on them.''
Scherbarth has had two male cougars, a female and pair of cubs on his land in recent years. He sees the tracks of the female and cubs regularly and estimates that the cubs weigh 60ápounds now.
“They're big, old devils and still follow her everywhere she goes,'' he said.
Regulations prohibit shooting any mountain lion accompanied by another, because a pair is presumed to be a mother and a cub. The intent is to prevent the orphaning of a cub. Rules also prohibit hunters from shooting any cougar with spots, because it's probably a juvenile.
Rancher Dennis Brott has lived south of Chadron for 20 years and has never seen a mountain lion — only tracks. Fresh tracks.
It's time to hunt cougars because they show no fear of humans, Brott said.
Tales abound in the Pine Ridge of cougars watching ranchers repair fences; cougars sunning on rocky ledges within view of remote homesteads, or dashing across a road only to sit and watch a startled driver stop and stare.
It's not uncommon for residents to have stories of finding cougar tracks on their porches or in their barns.
Brott capped months of planning since winning one of the lottery permits by attending a mountain lion hunting seminar at a sports show Friday in Rapid City, S.D., and then hunting during the weekend.
“I need all the help I can get,'' said Brott, 66. “I consider this a once-in-a-lifetime thing.''
The lions had two advantages during the weekend that they didn't have in January.
In early January, the region's hills and canyons were covered with snow. Hunters rely on snow to find fresh tracks. But by Saturday, most of the snow and the hunters' hopes had melted.
And, unlike the January hunts, hunters are not allowed to use dogs to chase and tree a mountain lion. Prohibiting hunters from using hounds gives the big cats an advantage. Wildlife biologists say hunters without dogs have only a 1 to 2 percent chance of bagging a cougar.
One hunting strategy is to stumble across the carcass of a freshly killed deer and then wait in hiding for the cat to return to the feast.
Another is to use predator calls. The manual or electronic devices mimic a fawn or rabbit in distress.
Predator calls are not guaranteed to attract a cougar, said Steve Masek of Chadron, a 73-year-old state wildlife technician in the Pine Ridge.
“You might call in a coyote or bobcat,” he said.
Masek received one of the lottery permits but didn't hunt during opening weekend.
“I hate to shoot something just to kill,'' Masek said. “I don't have a problem with the hunting season. I just don't know what I'd do with a mountain lion if I got one.''
Schlager, a wellfield construction technician at the Crow Butte uranium mine near Crawford, traps bobcats for pelts as a hobby.
He said tracking cats during the weekend was impossible.
“Conditions are absolutely terrible,'' Schlager said. “We had snow, but it melted. Now we have ice on top of what snow is left. Hunters aren't going to sneak up on anything with this crunching underfoot.''
Trail cameras and tracking give hunters information, Schlager said, but when pursuing elusive and reclusive mountain lions, there is one element he can't control.
“You're just going to have to get lucky.''