Nebraska’s native mountain lions are in peril. The Game and Parks Commission’s vote last week to approve a hunt quota for the 2021 season is unsustainable. A healthy mountain lion population is essential for a resilient and balanced ecosystem and even supports at least one federally endangered species of beetle in Nebraska.
The Commission’s approved plan allows hunters to kill up to four lions in the Pine Ridge region. While that’s half of the previous year’s quota, it’s still unsustainable. Given this population’s precarious foothold in the region, it cannot withstand any hunting whatsoever.
Once driven to extinction in the state, the animals have struggled to make a comeback, and it was only in 2007 that biologists identified a new mountain lion kitten in the Pine Ridge region. Rather than continuing to grow and gain a foothold, the population has decreased by half since 2017. While the current population estimate is 34, that doesn’t account for the seven lions killed in the 2020 season. There are about 27 lions in the Pine Ridge at the moment. Considering that about 1/3 of them are kittens or juveniles, that leaves approximately 18 breeding-age lions in this population that can be legally hunted. This is very bad news for this native species.
Wildlife biologists point to the aptly named 50/500 rule, which says a population needs at least 50 breeding individuals in order to avoid the short-term effects of inbreeding, and it needs 500 individuals to avoid the long-term effects of genetic drift which can leave small populations susceptible to reduced biological fitness. With fewer than 20 breeding adults in the Pine Ridge, the population is already in jeopardy. Removing four more in the name of recreation or trophy hunting places a potentially devastating stress on this population.
As a keystone species, the mountain lion’s presence supports numerous other plant and animal communities. For example, the federally endangered American burying beetle, Nicrophorus americanus, which is found and protected in Nebraska, depends on animal carcasses for survival. A recent study found that mountain lion kills provide food and habitat for over 200 carrion beetles. Maintaining a healthy mountain lion population in the Pine Ridge region may facilitate the beetle’s recolonization.
This native species has an inherent right to survive and flourish in the wild. Hunting a small and imperiled population like the one at Pine Ridge should be the last thing on the Commission’s agenda, especially given their stated goal to maintain healthy, stable mountain lion populations in the state. This is a time for conservation and protection. The only right choice is for them to stop the hunt immediately and in perpetuity for the health of Nebraska’s wildlife, wild lands, and for future generations.