The History of Lions in Nebraska
Genetic research indicates that the common ancestor of today's Leopardus, Lynx, Puma, Prionailurus, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago.
Petroglyph at Nebraska
What we know as a cougar today became recognizable as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago and inhabited nearly all of the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, alongside the giant sloth, the mammoth, the dire wolf and the saber-toothed lion.
During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleontologists believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited Nebraska, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years.
Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song. As European settlement expanded in the 1840's, cougar persecution and riding the landscape of dangerous wildlife became more common.
After the Pleistocene ice age 10,000 years ago, the stone age culture inhabited the American landscape as nomadic hunters of large game, including the Woolly Mammoth, giant bison and the saber-tooth tiger. Slowly, mountain lions recolonized North America after having retreated to warmer climates in South America during the Pleistocene ice age. Mountain lions would have inhabited all of what is now Nebraska, roaming the hills and plains as an apex predator, hunting deer, elk and other large game.
More recently, many Great Plains Native American tribes inhabited Nebraska, including the Pawnee, the Omaha, the Lakota Sioux, the Winnebago and the Cheyenne. Generally, all tribes practiced some form of agriculture and seasonal hunting of the buffalo, though those tribes who acquired horses were able to live a more nomadic lifestyle, following resources year-round. All Plains tribes lived alongside mountain lions, though lions were more common in the western half of the state as it provided more hilly terrain and cover suitable for mountain lion habitat. Mountain lions were revered as strong and powerful spiritual teachers. In fact, there is a Winnebago legend about a young man who was blessed by a mountain lion who traveled with him and gave him strength to win a battle with the warriors of another village who had taken his wife.
In addition to great civil unrest that grew between tribes, they were also forced off their traditional lands through a total of 18 separate treaties that ceded tribal lands to the U.S. government between 1825 and 1892. Many tribes were completely displaced by relocation to Indian Territory, a U.S. government territory set aside for Native American occupation to clear the land for settlers. By the 1850s, only the Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Lakota and Cheyenne remained as Great Plains tribes living in Nebraska territory.
The Homestead Act of 1862 opened up the Great Plains, including Nebraska, by granting white settler families 160 acres of surveyed ‘public’ (formerly tribal) land that required 5 years of continuous residence. Europeans settling the territory set about clearing the land of mountain lions and other predators, fearing for their own safety and for their livestock. It took just over 30 years to extirpate the big cats by any means possible, including shooting, trapping and poison baiting.
There was a robust fur trade established in northwestern Nebraska during the 1800s but there is no mention of mountain lion skins being a desirable commodity to fur traders there. The mountain men who came after Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s trapped mainly beaver and otter. The Bordeaux Trading post was established in 1837 under orders from the American Fur Company and set up trade with the Sioux and other local tribes. Once the beaver were trapped out, demand ran to buffalo robes and the Sioux and other tribes supplied quantities of buffalo skins that were shipped back east by boat. During the 1860s, hostilities grew between non-treaty Native Americans and the fur traders and trade became dangerous. By 1872 the fur trade with the Native Americans was all but dead. There were no more buffalo robes to sell and the last fur traders sold antelope, deer and wolf skins, cattle hides and ponies.
According to the Farmers Bulletin 1165 from the USDA, ‘Laws Relating to Fur-Bearing Animals 1920’ counties in Nebraska who voted in general election to instate bounties on fur-bearers could charge $3 for a mountain lion at that time. There have been no state-wide bounties put out on mountain lions in Nebraska.
Since their extirpation from Nebraska in the late 1890s, unregulated hunting has historically forced remaining native populations to retreat to surrounding states with mountain lion habitat: Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. It was not until the early 1990s when they achieved game status with no open hunt that individuals began again to disperse back into Nebraska.
Sport and Recreational Hunting
Mountain lions were classified as a game species by the Nebraska State Legislature in 1995, mandating the Commission to set hunting seasons only if the lion population was large enough to sustain a harvest. This gave Nebraska lions some protection under Commission ruling until 2014 when, in a controversial decision, hunting permits were issued for mountain lions for the first time. During the prior two decades, game status appeared to protect mountain lions and allowed for some re-colonization of suitable habitat and establishment of breeding populations.