Nebraska's modest mountain lion population has a new defender with parliamentary cunning and sharp legislative fangs and claws.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha is drafting legislation to repeal a 2012 law used by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to establish the state's first cougar hunting season next year.
“There is no need or justification whatsoever to hunt these animals,'' Chambers said Monday. “It's cruelty. It's barbaric. I will do what I can to stop it.''
Chambers said he is prepared to oppose any legislation involving Game and Parks until the commission rescinds the season.
Tim McCoy, the commission's deputy director and a former head of its wildlife division, said Game and Parks would follow the wishes of the majority of legislators.
“If they provide some direction in a different way, then we'll work that way,'' he said.
Nearly two years ago, when Chambers was not in the Legislature, lawmakers passed a bill giving the commission the discretion to create a mountain lion hunting season. The vote was unanimous. The season opens with strict limitations Jan. 1.
McCoy said wildlife biologists decided earlier this year that the population of the big cats in northwest Nebraska's Pine Ridge was large enough to begin managing cougars as a game species, just as deer are managed through hunting. An estimated 22 cougars live in the region's rocky ridges, hills and grasslands. It's the only area of the state known to have a stable and reproducing population of mountain lions. Hunters may kill up to four mountain lions in the Pine Ridge next year.
“Obviously, there are people who have other opinions and we respect those opinions,” McCoy said. “Part of our charge is to manage the species for all the people. We think it's time to start managing mountain lions.”
Chambers said he told Commission Director Jim Douglas several weeks ago of his plans to block Game and Parks legislation as long there is a cougar hunting season. Chambers repeated the pledge to Roger Kuhn, the commission's parks division administrator, during a meeting Friday of the Legislature's Executive Board. Kuhn came to the board with requests to accept donations of land and playground equipment.
Chambers said he was prepared to put the Legislature on “Cruz control” during a 60-day session with a list of big issues to tackle. “Cruz control” was a reference to Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's actions during a 16-day, partial government shutdown last month in an effort to defund Obamacare.
Mountain lions are native to Nebraska but vanished in the 1890s because of poisoning and hunting. Cougars started migrating back into the Panhandle from neighboring Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming within a century. The first confirmed sighting of a cougar in Nebraska in modern times was in 1991 in the Pine Ridge.
The first cougar kittens — indicating a resident population — were documented in the Pine Ridge in 2007. There have been 104 confirmed sightings of cougars outside the Pine Ridge population since 1991. There have been no documented Nebraska cases of mountain lions attacking humans since that time.
Mountain lions are currently protected year-round in Nebraska but may be killed if threatening people or attacking livestock.
The hunting season opens in the Pine Ridge with two Nebraskans, one with a permit issued by lottery and another issued by auction, allowed to hunt through Feb. 14.
Hunting would continue from Feb. 15 to March 31 by 100 other Nebraskans who won permits in a lottery.
The seasons close immediately when one female is killed or the overall quota is reached.
Game and Parks biologists said the objective for the Pine Ridge season is to provide hunting opportunities while allowing a slight to moderate reduction in the cougar population.
Hunting also will be allowed during the year across most of the rest of the state in areas unlikely to establish a breeding population of mountain lions.
The debate over a Nebraska cougar hunting season generated dozens of letters, emails and phone calls to wildlife officials and commissioners this year. Opponents included Audubon Nebraska, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Mountain Lion Foundation and individuals from across the country.
During earlier years in the Legislature, Chambers, who is not a hunter, successfully blocked attempts by lawmakers to permit farmers and ranchers to force their neighbors to control prairie dogs. Not until Chambers left the Legislature because of term limits in 2009 was a prairie dog eradication bill passed. Then came approval of mountain lion hunts.
McCoy said commission biologists plan to re-evaluate the hunts and the cougar population after the season to determine the need for future seasons.
Chambers lists his occupation in the legislative roster as “defender of the downtrodden.” He now includes regal cougars among the downtrodden.
“Fun time is over,'' he said.
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.