The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is going to continue managing mountain lions as a game animal, which will include harvest seasons when it’s appropriate to meet management goals, fur bearer and carnivore program manager Sam Wilson said Thursday.

Wilson said new data for the cat triggers a lot of discussion, even though a mountain lion is rarely seen.

On May 8, new population figures were reported for the lions in the Pine Ridge, the region in which cougars have re-established themselves in Nebraska for the longest time.

While the agency doesn’t have scientific estimates for populations in the Wildcat Hills, Niobrara Valley or the entire state, Wilson said the research projects in the Pine Ridge, which include both the Capwire and mark-recapture methods, have resulted in reliable scientific-based estimates of mountain lions for that region.

The 2019 surveys arrived at a population estimate of 34 in the Pine Ridge, down from 59 in 2017.

The new population figure reflects five mountain lions per 100 square kilometres of suitable habitat for the species. Wilson said the goal is 5-7 per 100 sq. kilometres.

“We wanted to bring that population down because the density was higher in the Pine Ridge than it was in most of the Mountain West states where mountain lions are hunted,” he said.

One important component of managing mountain lions in Nebraska is the hunting season, which ran from Jan. 2 to March 31 in the Pine Ridge. It marked the third regulated hunting season for the species in Nebraska. The season had a quota of eight total cats, with no more than two females allowed for harvest in each of the two designated subunits.

The 398 permit holders harvested seven cats, the most of any of the state’s three seasons. Five were harvested in 2019 and three in 2014.

This year’s total consisted of two females and five males, including a tom that was 7 years old and weighed 171 pounds – the largest of any cat taken during Nebraska’s three hunting seasons.

Wilson said Game and Parks plans to keep a close watch on the species, which the Nebraska Legislature has classified as a game animal, and continue making management decisions based on science. The management plan states that Nebraska will have resilient and socially acceptable mountain lion populations that are in balance with habitat and other wildlife populations.

The next round of surveys in the Pine Ridge is scheduled for 2021.

More details are in Wilson’s presentation at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s website for the species, outdoornebraska.org/mountainlions.