Referred to as mountain lion, cougar and several other names, Puma concolor has become one of the most discussed wildlife species in the state. For all of that talking, though, it seems there is always a need to dispel a few myths and provide accurate information to the public regarding the species.
Historical accounts of the species in Nebraska, while sparse, date back to the Stephen H. Long expedition of 1819. Along with so many other species, cougars disappeared from Nebraska with Euro-American settlement. Not only did early settlers slay predators at every opportunity, more importantly they killed the predators’ prey. The decimation of deer and other prey species in the late 1800s and early 1900s surely made Nebraska a less desirable place for mountain lions to live.
The return of the mountain lion, not coincidentally, arrived at about the same time Nebraska was realizing the return of a flourishing deer population. As the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission began offering plentiful antlerless-only permits tags and bonus tags in the 1990s to manage the burgeoning deer population that was once nearly extirpated, cougars also found harvest opportunities of their favorite prey in Nebraska and began showing up to the party. The first modern confirmation of a mountain lion in Nebraska came in 1991, marking the cats’ expansion from large populations in bordering states where cougar and prey populations had recovered because of protection by game laws.
In discussions of mountain lion numbers, biologists are quick to point out that cougars do not adhere to any arbitrary borders and Nebraska’s cats are part of a larger population that extends to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, and other points west.
In 1995, the Nebraska Legislature classified mountain lions as game animals. A provision in state statute allows individuals to kill mountain lions if they are threatening their lives or property.
Game and Parks has established management programs that meet those statutory obligations and are designed to curtail negative interactions between humans and the cats, and has gone to great lengths to gain public input about the species, usually not having to work too hard to get it. It seems everyone has an opinion on this species, ranging from “get rid of them” to “just let them be.”
To help guide management decisions about the species, Game and Parks has opted to take a scientific approach rather than an emotional one. Biologists recognize the mountain lion as an important part of Nebraska’s biodiversity, but also strive to employ management strategies to maintain resilient, healthy and socially acceptable populations in balance with available habitat and other wildlife species over the long term.
In 2015, Game and Parks ramped up its research efforts under the direction of Sam Wilson, furbearer and carnivore program manager. By capturing mountain lions and equipping them with GPS tracking collars, researchers have gained new insight into how this species is spending its time in the Pine Ridge. The research has not only given Nebraska officials a better idea of how many cats are in the area, but also what they’re eating and how they are using the terrain.
By using both the revered and well-established mark-recapture survey method coupled with modern genetic surveys, Game and Parks has gained confidence in its population estimates in the Pine Ridge. Remarkably, those two methods came up with exactly the same number of cats when the most recent population estimates were tabulated in 2017. Both survey methods arrived at 59 individuals in the Pine Ridge of Sioux, Dawes and Sheridan counties.
The population estimates and number of collared cougars in the Pine Ridge provide a safeguard against overharvest when hunting recommendations are made. Biologists do note, however, that the population is always fluctuating. Mountain lions reproduce, die and move in and out of the state.
Based on Game and Parks research, individual cats with tracking collars have traveled as far as 20 miles in one day. They have established breeding ranges in the Pine Ridge, Niobrara Valley and Wildcat Hills, but with individual females documented in southeastern Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Tennessee, it is possible that cats will expand their home ranges into other territories. Nebraska contains highly suitable habitat along creeks and rivers from border to border.