Don’t look now, but there may be a couple of keen eyes within a placid suburb or rural Midwestern neighborhood. In fact, they might be up a tree.
That’s where Nebraska’s most recent mountain lion was spotted earlier this year. The 100-pound animal was lounging comfortably in a tree in South Sioux City, across the Missouri River from Sioux City, when Elidia Valdivia noticed it.
"I really wasn’t scared," she told the Sioux City Journal. "It wasn’t growling or anything. It was just lying there, kind of sleeping. Squirrels were running around, and it just looked at them."
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission was notified, a sniper called in and the majestic male lion was taken down in accordance with the agency’s policy: Any mountain lion in or close to urban areas gets the death penalty.
For better or worse, mountain lions are moving into the Midwest. In the past three years, cougars have been spotted, captured or killed in or near the large cities of Minneapolis, Kansas City and Omaha.
The lions are migrating eastward because of human development pressures on the Front Range of the Rockies and the increasing abundance of deer, their favorite prey. Mountain lions once roamed most of the continent, but were wiped out from the Midwest by the 20th century. The sightings and shootings of lions in the past decade mark an end to the animals’ century-long absence on the Plains. The Black Hills, it is estimated, are home to more than 125 cougars, and it is likely that some of those are fanning out over the Midwest, too.
Wildlife lovers find this a scintillating development. If you think they’re delighted in Nebraska, imagine the wildlife enthusiasts in North Dakota. That state may be getting mountain lions from the south and west, gray wolves from the north and east and black bears from the north.
"We have spent the last 50 years restoring the prey base of deer, turkey and other wildlife, with some very good successes," says Duane Hovorka, director of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation. "I think it is just logical to assume the predators will find the food and move in.
"We’re going to need public education about these animals," he adds, "or we’ll run into increasing conflicts. The alternative is to shoot anything larger than a coyote, and that doesn’t strike me as the best solution."
Hovorka’s analysis has plenty of public support, but not necessarily with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and similar agencies in nearby states. Ironically, on its Web site, the Nebraska commission exhorts "understanding and tolerance" of mountain lions to "prevent us from repeating the mistake of extirpating this magnificent feline from Nebraska once again."
That sounds honorable, but the fact is that the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission — as well as hunters, ranchers, law enforcement officers and others who have encountered and killed cougars in Nebraska, Iowa and elsewhere on the Plains — show little tolerance for the animals. They often come off as trigger-happy and heavy-handed.
Six mountain lions, a protected species in Nebraska, have been killed in the state since 1991. One was hit by a train, but of the other five, only one was killed in an urban area, and that animal posed no immediate threat.
The truth is that mountains lions are more scared of humans than we are of them. It doesn’t help that old stereotypes about predators still exist. Mountain lions were cast as villains in old episodes of "Lassie" and "Bonanza," and that perspective hasn’t changed much. In a more recent example, looming terrorists were depicted as a wolf pack in a George W. Bush television commercial last year.
If animal-control representatives are continuously seen as oppressive and paranoid by some members of the public, those same people may refuse to contact authorities when they see a mountain lion. They may fear that game officials will come out and take the animal down. And history backs them up.
One of the realities today is that many, many more Americans — five or six times as many — would rather watch wildlife than shoot it. That gap grows every year.
So, it makes sense to learn a little about coexisting with some of the newest residents here in Nebraska and other Midwestern states. You’d think we could find alternatives to gunning down every mountain lion that crosses the border — or that takes a five-minute break to relax in a neighborhood tree.
Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.