FREDERICK: Lion shooting reminds us of our ties to Nebraska nature

Steve Frederick

A few months ago I attended a meeting of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to learn a bit more about mountain lions. One of my ambitions as a photographer is to get a photo of a lion. I was hoping to get to tag along on some Game and Parks studies, but I’m still waiting for an invitation.

In the meantime, I collected some notes at that meeting. The recent shooting of a lion that ventured into Gering gives me an opportunity to share some of that information about the lion situation in western Nebraska.

By way of background, mountain lions had been all but eradiacated by settlers in Nebraska for most of the past century. Weighing up to 160 pounds, they’re the state’s largest resident predator, preferring remote wooded areas. They feed mostly on deer, but also eat elk, bighorn sheep, small game, porcupines, and a variety of other species. They began reappearing in the 1990s, with sightings confirmed through shootings, vehicle collisions, trail camera photographs, tracks and feces. Most are believed to enter the state from Wyoming or South Dakota.

Sam Wilson, furbearer and carnivore program manager for the commission, has been studying them through a program of radio collaring and studying their feces, or scats, in part to determine the health of the cat population but also to study their impacts on prey animals, particularly bighorn sheep. In recent years, he added trail cameras.

“We’re keeping an eye on predation of sheep,” he said. “It’s an issue we’re very concerned about.”

With the return of mountain lions, the commission also faces political pressures from hunting and anti-hunting groups — including Sen. Ernie Chambers, an outspoken opponent of lion hunting — as well as livestock owners concerned about predation. No mountain lion hunting season took place in Nebraska during 2015. Future seasons will be determined by the commission.

The Pine Ridge and the Wildcat Hills hold two of the three distinct populations in the state. The other is in the Niobrara Valley. The largest is in the Pine Ridge, consisting of up about three dozen animals, where part of the state’s inaugural mountain lion hunting season was held in 2014. Seven animals were verified in the Wildcat Hills, not enough to establish a population estimate.

“I’d say there are resident animals that live year-round in the Wildcat Hills,” he said — probably traveling along the North Platte River. The animals can be highly mobile, especially young males insearch of territory.

“The habitat is connected to lion habitat in Wyoming. It’s quite likely that the animals in that part of Nebraska come in and go back.”

Due to their secretive nature and low density, mountain lions rarely interact with humans. Incidents such as the shooting in Gering and predation on cattle often play a role in the discussion abut whether or not to allow hunting, although the Commission’s goal is to maintain mountain lion populations in Nebraska over the long-term.

My goal is to get one on film.

That doesn’t have much to do with fishing, I’ll agree. After a long vacation in Honduras, I plan to get after them again before autumn weather starts starts closing in.

Meanwhile, Game and Parks plans Family Fishing events Aug. 14 at Terry’s Pit, 5-7 p.m., and Sept. 11 at the Zoo Pond, Scottsbluff, 5-7 p.m. Family Fishing events provide opportunities for people of all ages who have never fished or have not fished in years to learn and enjoy the activity. Rods and reels, as well as bait and fishing instruction, are available for free. Look for the Family Fishing trailer at each site. Appropriate fishing and park permits are required.

A few other items on the Game and Parks calendar for August:

LINCOLN – The following is a listing of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission events and important dates in August:

Aug. 1 – Squirrel season opens

Aug. 5 – State Park Summer Speaker Series: By My Teeth, Chadron SP, Chadron, 7 p.m., 308-432-6167

Aug. 5 – Final day for bighorn sheep lottery applications

Aug. 8 – Fall turkey permits available beginning at 1 p.m. Central Time

Aug. 11-14 – The Trotter’s Performance, Fort Robinson SP, Crawford, 308-665-2900

Aug. 12 – State Park Summer Speaker Series: The Magical Ecological Mystery Tour, Fort Robinson SP, Crawford, 7 p.m., 308-665-2900

Aug. 15 – Private land antlerless elk season opens

Aug. 15 – Bullfrog season opens

Aug. 18 – Drawing for bighorn sheep lottery permit

Aug. 20 – Archery antelope season opens

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