Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Director Jim Douglas on Thursday said there will be no mountain lion hunting season this year, but he did not rule out the possibility of future seasons.
Douglas said staff will conduct more research on mountain lion populations in the state through 2018, which will help the commission make decisions in managing the big game species.
"It doesn't mean that we will not have a season during the three-year period. We will look at each year to see what is going on," Douglas said in an interview during a commission meeting in Lincoln.
The commission has done scat-based genetic surveys since 2010, but plans to add Global Positioning System collars and a system of trail cameras, targeting areas where there are known breeding populations of mountain lions.
"This isn't any different than what we do with any other game species," Douglas said, indicating that the decision wasn't the result of any controversy surrounding the hunting of mountain lions in the state.
Nebraska's first mountain lion hunting season last year ended with five hunters filling their tags.
A vocal critic of the program, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, succeeded last year in passing a bill to repeal a hunting season for mountain lions, but then-Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed the bill and an override vote fell short.
Chambers, who introduced another bill (LB127) in this session to repeal the commission’s ability to set a hunting season, said the agency made a wise decision in not setting a season this year, but his bill is still needed.
By taking away that authority, he’s doing the commission a favor, Chambers said.
“Then they cannot be pressured by people like Cabela’s and others to implement a hunting season," he said. "They don’t even have to struggle with that issue.”
The number of mountain lions in Nebraska is so small that hunting should never be resorted to as a mechanism of management, Chambers said.
“In some instances," he said, "that may mean if one is found to be lurking for any period of time in an area where it shouldn’t ... they should tranquilize it and move it, not kill it."
Overall, the agency documented 16 lion deaths in 2014, including five killed legally by hunters, four killed legally because they threatened people or livestock, three incidentally trapped, two killed by vehicles, and two taken illegally.
Ten of the mountain lions killed were females, which Douglas cited as a factor in the commission's decision to not have a hunting season this year.
"We haven't had that many killed in the past," said Sam Wilson, the commission's furbearer and carnivore program manager.
Mountain lions are native to Nebraska but were wiped out by settlers and essentially vanished after 1890. A century passed before the next sighting, in 1991, in the Panhandle.
The agency will budget $60,000 a year for researching the mountain lion population, Wilson said. Seventy-five percent of the funds will be federal, and the commission will be responsible for 25 percent. The Nebraska Big Game Society has made a $10,000 donation to this year's research effort.
The research will be done in collaboration with experts at the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Nebraska and Chadron State College.
Mountain lion breeding populations have been documented in the hilly Pine Ridge region in the northwest corner of the state, along the Niobrara Valley in north-central Nebraska, and in the Wildcat Hills, near Scottsbluff in western Nebraska.
Researchers hope the studies will give them further insight on population numbers, including how many adult females there are in the state, whether mountain lions were involved in the killing of cattle and other animals, dispersal patterns and diet, and the establishment of territories by cats that travel through the state.
The commission plans to place GPS collars on seven to 15 individual mountain lions in the Pine Ridge area, and possibly other areas as opportunities arise. Wilson said the mountain lions would be captured in traps or treed by hunters with hounds, who would then call commission staff.
"GPS collars are the bell cows of mountain lion research," Wilson said.
A system of trail cameras will be placed in the Niobrara River Valley and the Wildcat Hills and possibly the Pine Ridge area, where there is a permanent total population of 22 mountain lions. The estimate is based on a genetic survey done last summer. Landowner permission would be sought to place the cameras on private land.
Scat surveys typically done every two years also would continue -- with a goal of collecting genetic material in the Wildcat Hills and Pine Ridge area this year -- and would be integrated into research data obtained by the other two research methods, Wilson said.