Mountain lion hunting ban requested

Hunting of mountain lions would be prohibited in Nebraska under a bill heard by the Natural Resources Committee Feb. 25.

LB961, introduced by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, would end the state Game and Parks Commission’s authority to establish a hunting season for mountain lions.

Current law allows Nebraskans at least 12 years old to hunt antelope, elk, mountain sheep and mountain lions. Those between 12 and 15 may hunt those animals under the supervision of someone who is at least 19 and holds a valid hunting permit. LB961 would remove mountain lions from those provisions.

A similar bill introduced by Chambers in 2014 was vetoed by then-Gov. Dave Heineman. The state’s first mountain lion hunting season was held that year, but the commission has authorized no hunting since then due to the large number of females killed that year.

Chambers said that year’s legal hunting took five cats and 11 others were killed by illegal hunting, traps and auto accidents. Ten of the 16 cats killed that year were females, he said.

Mountain lions were native to the state but disappeared from Nebraska by the late 1800s due to settlers’ efforts to exterminate them. Mountain lions returned to Nebraska in the early 1990s and have established breeding populations in three areas in the northwest part of the state. The commission estimates that about 20 animals live in the Pine Ridge area.

Chambers said there have been no documented mountain lion attacks on humans or livestock since the animals returned to the state in the early 1990s. There are so few lions that the commission should be able to preserve them and ensure public safety without relying on hunting, a practice designed only to raise revenue and provide hunters with the “thrill” of killing, he said.

“These animals don’t just belong to hunters,” Chambers said. “These animals are of interest to all of the citizens of this state.”

Patricia Fuller spoke in support of the bill. She said mountain lions are a keystone species that prevent populations of deer and elk from growing too large for their habitat to support. Wyoming, Colorado and Washington, states with much larger mountain lion populations, have reduced conflicts between mountain lions and humans by expanding educational outreach programs and emergency response plans, Fuller said.

“Random culling via sport hunting will not make Nebraskans safer,” she said.

Tim McCoy, deputy director of the state Game and Parks Commission, testified against the bill, saying that the commission’s goal is the long-term preservation of mountain lions in Nebraska. No game species the commission has managed has become endangered, he said, and hunting permits provide funding for conservation and research efforts.

“We have a long-standing expertise in terms of managing game species in this state,” McCoy said. “We believe we should maintain that authority to manage mountain lions like we do other species.”

McCoy said the commission is conducting a multi-year study of mountain lion populations using radio collars and DNA analysis of the animals’ droppings. He said the commission will evaluate whether to hold another hunting season in 2018 after completing a study of the current population.

Scott Smathers, executive director of the Nebraska Sportsmen’s Foundation, also spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it would strip the commission of a useful tool for managing the state’s mountain lion population.

“The elimination of using hunting permits represents a serious threat to science-based management and the sustainability of other wildlife populations in the state,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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