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Kearney mountain lion
Southwest Kearney residents gather around the truck to view a mountain lion killed after being spotted roaming through yards in the central Nebraska city of Kearney Monday, May 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Kearney Hub, Brad Norton)

A mountain lion shot by police Monday in Kearney fit the pattern of most other big cats that have wandered through Nebraska.

It was an adolescent male weighing 118 pounds, probably traveling along a river corridor in search of female companionship. What made this mountain lion unusual was its decision to detour into a city of nearly 31,000 people.

Residents of a southwest Kearney neighborhood, about two miles from the Platte River, reported seeing the cougar Monday morning shortly before police killed the animal, said Sam Wilson, a wildlife biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Although Nebraska protects the big cats, the shooting was consistent with a protocol allowing them to be killed when they present a danger to people or livestock.

Mountain lions usually avoid people and buildings, so they are presumed dangerous when they show up in an urban area or farmstead, Wilson said.

"We err on the side of human safety," he said, adding that other states follow mountain lion protocols similar to Nebraska's.

Mountain lions once inhabited Nebraska but were wiped out after the state was settled in the late 1800s. The first modern confirmation of a big cat took place in 1991. Since then, the number of confirmed sightings has been growing.

In recent years, biologists have confirmed a small population of breeding mountain lions in the Pine Ridge of northwestern Nebraska. Sightings in the region no longer are tallied, but those outside of the Pine Ridge are tracked.

Including the Kearney cougar, officials have now confirmed 48 sightings outside of the Pine Ridge.

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All of those 48 cougars have been males. The absence of females or kittens suggests they have not yet established year-round populations outside of the Pine Ridge.

Since 1991, 14 mountain lions have been shot while five were struck by vehicles and one was killed by a train.

The agency has confirmed nine urban sightings, Wilson said. In addition to Kearney, big cats have appeared in Omaha, South Sioux City, St. Paul, Harrison and four times in Scottsbluff. The Omaha cougar was shot in 2004 but survived and now lives at Henry Doorly Zoo.

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The closest confirmation to Lincoln was one killed by traffic in 2005 along Interstate 80 in Sarpy County. The agency has received many additional sightings, which it can't confirm without clear evidence.

The agency has investigated more than 100 reports of mountain lions feeding on livestock in Nebraska, but has been unable to confirm one, Wilson said. Mountain lions prey extensively on deer, which are plentiful in Nebraska.

Some disagree with the agency's policy of killing cats that come close to humans, arguing they should be tranquilized and relocated instead.

Sedatives take time to act, which gives a cat a chance to escape or perhaps attack a person, Wilson said. The bigger problem, however, is the lack of a place to release them. The state has no public lands large enough and neighboring states have refused to take mountain lions from Nebraska.

"We would essentially be taking a problem animal from private property and releasing it back on private property," Wilson said.

Reach Joe Duggan at 402-473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

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