The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission stated that last year's Pine Ridge population estimate of 59 mountain lions may be enough to open up a hunting season.
Sam Wilson, carnivore program manager, reported to Game and Parks commissioners last Friday that "population data likely supports holding a harvest season in the Pine Ridge." While a decision has yet to be made about a potential 2018 mountain lion hunting season in Nebraska, the science behind their estimate is questionable and the suggestion that hunting is the best management tool for such a tiny population is outrageous.
Nebraska Senator Ernie Chambers, a longtime champion of lions, introduced a bill (LB 671) in 2014 that would have repealed the passing of a 2012 bill (LB 928) which allowed a mountain lion hunting season. LB 671 made it through the painfully slow legislative process only to be vetoed once it reached the governor's desk. Senator Chambers' two follow-up attempts in 2015 and 2016 were "indefinitely postponed" and effectively killed as well.
Though there may have been as few as 22 mountain lions in all of Pine Ridge back in 2014, the commission still allowed the kill by trophy hunters of 3 males and 2 females (and likely the orphaning of a few cubs as a result) during the State's inaugural lion hunting season. An additional 11 mountain lions were killed the same year by poaching, traps, and vehicle collisions.
If there were in fact only 22 lions in 2014, then 16 of those were killed.
Photo: Between 2014 and 2017 only 123 mountains have been sighted in Nebraska.
Of the 16 lions killed by humans in 2014, 10 were female. This is an inordinately high percentage that can significantly damage both the social structure of the lion population and potentially hasten local extinction. The high number of non-hunting related mountain lion mortalities resulted in no harvest season between 2015 and 2017.
The two new scientific reports that Wilson cited are based on scat analysis, a fairly novel technique. We don't know whether the 2014 numbers were based on scat or other methods. Techniques other than scat analysis report adult resident mountain lions based on intensive field research that includes collaring, capture/recapture, and track analysis. Scat analysis cannot exclude kittens and transient individuals, therefore causing numbers to seemingly skyrocket when kittens — representing about 30% of the population — are suddenly and inexplicably counted.
The lack of transparency, specifically the fact that the agency has not shared its research, leaves opponents to a hunt unable to critique the science. Moreover, the Commission is not reporting other human causes of mortality. As far as we can tell, the State has not yet reported all human-caused mortality for 2015 - 2017.
The commission is indeed deceiving the public with these tactics; it's like reporting deer populations by taking a census during the spring when fawns are born (censuses are actually conducted in the fall after hunting season and only include adults). Including kittens and transients inflates populations numbers and frightens people into thinking mountain lions are recovering quickly and spreading throughout the state, and further bolsters the prospect of a proposed hunt. The commission needs to consistently report adult resident numbers.
Mountain lions and other apex predators do not need to be "managed" by humans: their populations respond to and are dependent on the abundance of prey. For mountain lions in the Prairie States, primary collaring research or deer population estimates are the best indication of how many mountain lions a geographic area can support. The traditional practice of killing a species to save it is tailored towards appeasing hunters and ranchers and creates more problems than it solves. Contrary to popular belief, hunters do not contribute the bulk of the funding for mountain lion management in Nebraska: they contributed nothing at all from 2015 - 2017 when no lion hunting season was held. Instead, residents who have purchased the State's mountain lion license plate have provided the majority of the funding for their management — more than $60,000 each year from plate sales alone.
Decisions made by the Game and Parks Commission, or any legislature for that matter, should be based upon sound science. Few biologists would agree on a decision to allow a hunting season for a population as small as the one in Pine Ridge.
The Nebraska Mountain Lion Management Plan, formally adopted by the commission in October of 2017, reads as a justification for an annual "harvest" rather than a scientifically-based evaluation that considers the value of lions to Nebraska's human health and ecosystems. The plan will not be reviewed and updated for another 5 years.
The two studies that yielded the estimates of 59 total lions in Pine Ridge are still undergoing peer review from Wilson and fellow wildlife biologists. Although the commission indicated that a public informational meeting will be held in the coming months, agencies often withhold their rationale and supporting documents until the last minute.
If you oppose Nebraska's plan to hunt mountain lions, please consider signing our petition or writing a personal letter to your Nebraska Game and Parks commissioners and State Senators.