Mountain lions roaring back to Nebraska

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Mountain lions are mostly active at sunrise and sunset

Story by Nathaniel Perlow
Photos courtesy of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Ever since mountain lions were nearly wiped out in the 20th Century, they have gradually repopulated in Nebraska and across the Midwest.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Nebraska and many other states changed the classification of mountain lions from predators to game animals. Mountain lions were no longer shot on sight. Hunters were no longer given bounties when they killed mountain lions. The population of these big cats continued to grow throughout the Midwest.

These big cats are a rare sight, but they still have a growing presence in Nebraska, according to Sam Wilson of Nebraska Game and Parks.

“They’re mostly nocturnal and crepuscular (active at sunrise and sunset). During the day they normally would be resting, hiding or laying in the shade,” Wilson said.

Wilson is the Furbearer and Carnivore Program Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and has extensive knowledge on mountain lions.

“Even in areas like the Pine Ridge or Colorado, the best mountain lion habitat there is, mountain lions are very rarely seen,” Wilson said. “They are just very aware of their surrounding and people don’t often see them even in areas where they’re present in high numbers.”

According to Wilson, the Pine Ridge area, located in northwestern Nebraska, is the only part of the state with a year round presence of mountain lions (female and male, adults and kittens).

“The best habitat for mountain lions in Nebraska is in Pine Ridge…” Wilson said. “It’s the biggest chunk of contiguous habitat that we have for mountain lions.”

Wilson said the rough terrain and variety of prey for mountain lions make the Pine Ridge area prime habitat for them.

“You have white tail and mule deer, you have elk, turkeys, raccoons, so lots of prey,” Wilson said. “You also have covers so there are areas for mountain lions to hide and for them to sneak up and ambush prey. You have pine trees, cedar trees, very steep canyons, buttes and cliffs.”

Outside of the Pine Ridge, there are other areas in Nebraska with ideal mountain lion habitat.

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Nebraska map detailing all the mountain lion presences since 1991

“The Wildcat Hills, in the Scottsbluff area, is similar to the Pine Ridge in that it has pine trees, extremely steep valleys, cliffs, buttes, so that’s great mountain lion habitat,” Wilson said. “The other area is the Niobrara River Valley (near Valentine) with super thick forests, cedar trees and deer, turkey, raccoons everywhere you look.”

There have been mountain lion sightings in these areas, according to Nebraska Games and Parks, but dispersing mountain lions have not settled in these places.

“We don’t have confirmation of females with reproduction. They could be there but we don’t have any evidence of it yet,” Wilson said. “There is a lot of available habitat for mountain lions that doesn’t have any mountain lions presently in it.”

As a hunting enthusiast, UNL Agronomy Major Matt Zvolanek said it makes sense more mountain lions are starting to move eastward toward their natural habitat.

“It seems like there is a lot more animal movement, not just mountain lions but also elk are moving eastward. The deer population has exploded, so they are just going wherever the food source is.”

According to Nebraska Game and Parks, since 1991, there have been 69 confirmed mountain lion presences in Nebraska outside the Pine Ridge population. This includes mountain lion tracks, photos, captures and mortalities. Wilson said all of these confirmed mountain lion presences are basically all the same.

“Every single mountain lion that we know the age and sex for outside of the panhandle has been a young male between one and two and a half (years old) and between 110 to 120 pounds,” Wilson said.

Wilson said young mountain lions are known to travel long distances looking for females. A documented example of this activity is a mountain lion from the Black Hills being killed by a vehicle in Connecticut around 1,800 miles away.

“If they head west, there are females in the Rocky Mountains,” Wilson said. “If they head north, they are females in the Black Hills. If they head east, the nearest female is in Florida.”

In Nebraska, 24 of the confirmed mountain lions have been shot or killed by vehicles. The closest mountain lion presence to Lincoln was when one was shot and killed in 2005 along Interstate 80 south of Omaha.

Nebraska law states people can only kill a mountain lion if it is threatening people or livestock. If a mountain lion is shot and killed, it needs to be reported to Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

“If it’s attacking your livestock or you and you shoot it…I think you’re supposed to call Game and Parks,” Zvolanek said, “and they’ll take the body and they’ll want to do an autopsy on it to see where it’s from, how far it’s travelled because they have radio tags on a majority of them.”

If you see a mountain lion and don’t have anything to protect yourself, it is important to note the following guidelines:

-Never approach a mountain lion
-Slowly back away and make yourself look as big as possible
-If the mountain lion is being aggressive, pick up a stick or other object to defend yourself.
-If a mountain lion does attack, fight back and defend yourself.