Nebraska mountain lions -- having made a comeback over the past two decades after being gone for about a century -- now face the possibility of being hunted legally.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is set to vote next month on draft regulations that would allow hunters to kill three mountain lions during two open seasons in the Pine Ridge area.
"The commission intends to manage mountain lions like we do other game animals like deer, elk and bighorn sheep, and that may include a limited harvest," said Sam Wilson, mountain lion expert for Game and Parks.
Under draft regulations that could be changed at the commission's May 24 meeting in Chadron, 100 permits would be issued by lottery to Nebraskans and one through an auction also open to non-residents.
Auction proceeds would go to mountain lion management and research.
The commission estimates the Pine Ridge has an established breeding population of 22 animals, with enough habitat to support 27. Young male mountain lions who have gone in search of their own territories have been spotted as far east as Omaha.
The Legislature listed mountain lions as a game animal in 1995 but did not allow them to be hunted. State law does allow people to kill mountain lions if they stalk, attack or show unprovoked aggression.
Thirty-six have been shot, found dead or run over since 1991, Wilson said.
Under the proposed regulations, hunting with firearms and archery equipment would be allowed only in parts of Box Butte, Dawes, Sheridan and Sioux counties that are north of the Niobrara River and west of Nebraska 27.
Open seasons would run Jan. 1-Feb. 9 and Feb. 15-March 31.
Three mountain lions could be harvested over both seasons, Wilson said. But only one of those lions could be a female.
"Whenever a female is harvested, the season ends," Wilson said. "But if they are two males (harvested first), the last one can be a male or female."
Hunters will be required to check in with the commission daily to see whether the season is still open.
Wilson speculated that most hunters would seek male lions as trophies, as they do with other big-game species. The males can reach about 8 feet and weigh 100 to 150 pounds. Females are smaller.
The winner of the auction and the first four people drawn in the lottery would be allowed to hunt with dogs during the second open season.
The Nebraska Wildlife Federation, which has been working with the commission on the regulations, has some concerns but has not yet taken a position.
"We certainly don't support exterminating mountain lions from Nebraska," Executive Director Duane Hovorka said. "One of our concerns is the use of dogs in hunting mountain lions. So, I think it is something that needs to be done very carefully."
Hovorka said the group would examine the commission's population studies and draft rules to ensure the population can be sustained and that a fair-chase philosophy is followed.
Wilson expects the issue to be controversial. "I believe that there will be people who feel passionately on both sides of this," he said.
Mountain lions are native to Nebraska but were wiped out by early settlers and essentially vanished after 1890.
A century passed before the next sighting in 1991 near Harrison in Sioux County, just a few miles from where the last one was killed.
Today's mountain lions came to Nebraska from South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado.
Mountain lions are hunted in all western states except California, Wilson said.
North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska are the only Plains states with mountain lions, Wilson said. Both Dakotas have had hunting seasons for the big cats since 2005.