Sen. Ernie Chambers approached this year's hearing on prohibiting mountain lion hunting seasons believing it was unlikely the bill would be advanced to the full Legislature.
As he talked Thursday to the Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Ken Schilz, he told members he wouldn't waste their time trying to persuade them to move the bill (LB127) forward.
The bill would take away the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's authority to establish a hunting season for the lions. It would not affect state law that allows a person to kill a mountain lion if humans or livestock are threatened.
Chambers promised that if the committee did not vote the bill out he would make a motion on the floor to pull it from the committee. If that is not successful, he said, he would have the bill drafted as an amendment to other various bills, taking time to debate each one.
"I'm not going to try to change your mind, but I'm letting you know: Be ready for whatever happens to the session. And contrary to what the governor said, we will be talking about mountain lions all session," he said.
Schilz has said he would not support advancing the bill and that he thought it would have a tough time getting through this year's committee. But he has not talked to all members or taken a vote count, he said.
"So we will take a vote. I suspect that Sen. Chambers expects that," Schilz said.
Last year a similar bill passed, but then-Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed it. Chambers could not get enough votes to override the veto.
Schilz said he offered to work with Chambers to find money to study the mountain lions more.
"But I can't agree that hunting should be taken off the table, and that seemed to be a nonstarter for him," he said.
In mid-2014, the Game and Parks Commission documented 22 mountain lions in the Pine Ridge area of the state. Over time, at least 49 have been documented outside of the Pine Ridge across the state. Two other habitat areas are in the Wildcat Hills and the western Niobrara River Valley.
Twelve mountain lions were killed last year, including an unusual amount of females, outside of hunting season. During the hunting season, three males and two females were killed.
"That's why we decided, responsibly, not to have a (hunting) season this coming year," said Jim Douglas, director of the Game and Parks Commission, who opposed the bill.
The commission has also started a four-year research project that includes collaring mountain lions to get additional information and precision on population estimates. Three have been collared in the past month, Douglas said.
The commission has spent more than $115,000 since 2010 on population estimations and research. And it intends to spend $60,000 a year for the next four years statewide for the collaring study, he said. The money will come from cash funds collected from Game and Parks permits.
Douglas said the goal is to maintain the state's mountain lion population long term, not to exterminate them, as Chambers has accused. The commission has a long history of managing game species, he said, and he would like to retain that management.
No game species managed by the commission has ever become endangered, he said. All of those in which hunting has played some role in population maintenance have prospered, he said.
Sam Wilson, carnivore program manager for the commission, told senators the commission has a long-term commitment to learning more about mountain lions in the state.
"All the people in the state, at least to me, appear to be very interested in mountain lions. We get a lot of questions about mountain lions. There's a lot of concern about depredation. We have a healthy livestock industry," Wilson said.
Chambers said there has been one documented case of a mountain lion attacking livestock in the state since 1991, and no attacks on people.
Without a hunting season, mountain lion problems could be responded to in ways allowed by state law now. They can be killed if they are threatening humans or attacking livestock, Wilson said.
Jarel Vinduska told the committee he wasn't a believer in taking management away from Game and Parks, but it doesn't need a hunting season to manage mountain lions. The state has limited habitat, he said.
No wildlife manager should consider a hunting season when the total number of mountain lions in the state is unknown, and the number that is known from one area is a couple of dozen, Vinduska said.
"You would never form a season on that small of a population," he said.
Scott Smathers, director of the Nebraska Sportsmen's Foundation, told the committee his concern about the bill was not about the actual hunt.
The bigger concern is opening the door to removing management of other wildlife from the authorities, biologists and scientists of Game and Parks, he said.
"This is not a legal issue or a political issue," Smathers said. "This is a science-based wildlife issue and needs to be left to the folks that manage wildlife in our state."