Do we need to hunt mountain lions in Nebraska?
By NET News
January 27th, 2014
Omaha, NE — The big predator cats, also called cougars or pumas, used to roam throughout the country until settlers nearly wiped them out. Seven years ago, camera traps captured the first solid evidence mountain lions were once again breeding in Nebraska.
â€œWe have an established population that weâ€™ve learned more about through research in Pine Ridge area in the northwest corner of state. In that area we believe we have between 15-22 mountain lions,â€ said Sam Wilson, furbearer and carnivore program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Wilson said thereâ€™s also evidence of even smaller populations near Valentine and Scottsbluff. Mountain lions generally prefer forested, hilly areas to corn fields. After a 2012 law allowed mountain lion hunting in Nebraska, Game and Parks opened two of four hunting areas in the state to hunting this year: the Pine Ridge, where most of the lions live and hunting is very limited, and the Prairie Unit, most of the rest of the state, where mountain lions are rare and hunting tags are unlimited.
â€œManagement of the species is to benefit the species,â€ said Scott Smathers, executive director of the Nebraska Sportsmanâ€™s Foundation. He said his group supports mountain lion hunting partly to protect the animals.
â€œIf you travel to rural Nebraska, thereâ€™s a large number of folks that believe in the shoot, shovel and shut up procedure with mountain lions. We wanted to take that away, put it in the hands of folks who are educated, skilled and dedicated to the management of wildlife, and thatâ€™s Game and Parks,â€ Smathers said.
Smathers said mountain lions benefit from Game and Parks managementÂ because thereâ€™s more public awareness and money for research. At auction, one man paid more than $13,000 for one tagâ€”much of which went to Game and Parks. The only other first season permit went to a 16-year old boy chosen by lottery. With the help of hunting dogs, each killed a male cat in early January.
â€œFirst of all, I donâ€™t call it hunting, I call it butchery. I feel very strongly about it, and when I saw the picture of that animal in a tree, and this boy shooting him, it infuriated me. I was more outraged and enraged than I had been about anything than I can remember,â€ State Sen. Ernie Chambers said.
Chambers has introduced a bill to repeal the mountain lion hunt, and vowed to fight any Game and Parks legislation until they do so. Chambers quoted the poet William Blake, and said he doesnâ€™t like to see living things killed:
â€œâ€™A robin redbreast in a cage; puts all heaven in a rage.â€™ These animals have a place in this universe. I think when you kill these animals for sport or fun or to get trophies, that indicates something very wrong in a society,â€ Chambers said.
Game and Parks Deputy Director Tim McCoy acknowledged there are very diverse opinions regarding hunting predators or other species. Thatâ€™s part of what complicates their work.
â€œThose are all valid opinions and philosophies people hold,â€ McCoy said. â€œWe try to stay in that management standpoint, somewhere in the middle of that balance as an agency.â€
Chambers also believes thereâ€™s an important ecological role of the big cats: â€œItâ€™s more than poetry or sentimentality to say that nature has set up a very delicate, intricate balance, and if you take one piece out of that puzzle, the rest of it collapses. And thatâ€™s whatâ€™s happening in places like Nebraska,â€ Chambers said.
â€œMountain lions certainly play an important ecological role,â€ Wilson of Game and Parks said. Mountain lions have positive impacts by preying on Nebraskaâ€™s abundant deer population, Wilson said. Research has shown big predators have numerous cascading impacts in an ecosystem, affecting crop damage, disease dynamics and even stream beds. Without big predators, deer and elk can over-consume riverbank vegetation and change the stream flow. But mountain lions have been gone from the state for more than a century.
â€œNebraska is not the ecosystem it was 150 years ago. We donâ€™t see buffalo running around out on the prairie anymore,â€ said population biologist John Carroll, professor of wildlife ecology and director of UNLâ€™s School of Natural Resources.
Carroll agreed mountain lions belong in some parts of the state, but â€œwhen we start talking about mountain lions as functioning part of the Nebraska landscape, I think that biologists would be pretty skeptical that theyâ€™re going to be major contributors to ecosystem functions there.â€
Mountain lions are territorial, solitary creatures that need room to roam. Tim McCoy of Game and Parks says hunting will help them keep the number of lions Nebraska can support in areas of suitable habitat and away from human conflict.
â€œWe donâ€™t have extremely large amounts of mountain lion habitat in the state. Itâ€™s very limited in its scope and extent,â€ McCoy said.
Mountain lions die in various ways, like being hit by cars. McCoy said they took that into account as they evaluated the mountain lion population to set hunting limits, as well as concerns from citizens. Wildlife biologist Carroll said those concerns add another complex layer to management:
â€œMountain lions are really neat. Even people who donâ€™t like them will find them very neat animals. But at the same time, they cover very large areas, they depredate cattle and eat deer, so there are lots of human activities in which they are not necessarily the best neighbors,â€ Carroll said.
Game and Parks said theyâ€™ll evaluate the mountain lion population to see how many hunting tags theyâ€™ll allow next year, as they do with all the species they manage. Carroll said the combination of science and social challenges of managing big charismatic wildlife species like mountain lions will only increase in the next century.
â€œWe have more and more demands on food production that requires much more intensive management of land. You obviously get conflicts between land for human use and what we set aside for say, biodiversity. I think mountain lion is just the tip of the iceberg here in terms of how we deal with those problems into the future,â€ Carroll said.
The second Pine Ridge mountain lion hunting season begins February 15th.
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