Nebraska’s 22 mountain lions in the crosshairs

The larger question looms: Who "owns" wildlife in the state?

 

It was just a few years ago that Nebraskans were awe-struck by the mountain lion’s return to the state after a century’s absence. Now we’re getting ready to hunt them down.

There are only an estimated 22 cougars currently roaming the state’s 77,000 square miles. Yet that’s enough to justify a hunting season, at least according to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The decision wasn’t a surprise. The nine commissioners were appointed by a like-minded governor who leans over backward to please the state’s agriculture interests, which demand that any potential threat to their livestock and corn -- however minuscule or exaggerated -- must be eliminated.

“We got along fine without them for 100 years,” said one anti-cougar Nebraska farmer. “We don’t want them.”

“God forbid they don’t eat a child,” wrote another over-excited rural Nebraskan. “Remember, people, these are killers, not pets, and you are on their food list.”

So far, humans have not provided much food for mountain lions. Statistics vary, but there have been between 12 and 20 fatal cougar attacks in the United States in the past 125 years -- about one every six to 10 years.

There is no documented case of a cougar ever stalking or threatening a human in Nebraska. There is no record of a cougar even killing a cow or any other livestock in the state. Nebraskans might be wiser to look over their shoulders for other, more deadly (if less dramatic-looking) creatures.

Those bees and wasps buzzing outside a barn or porch? They kill 40 to 50 Americans each year. That brown recluse or black widow nestled in one of your home’s ceiling corners? You are 40 to 50 times more likely to die from a spider bite than a cougar attack. And your neighbor’s German shepherd? It is 400 times more likely to come after you than a cougar is.

In fact, according to CDC statistics, a person living in the United States is 75 times more likely to die from choking on a toothpick than being attacked by a mountain lion. Given the dietary preponderance of meat and corn in Nebraska, there are plenty of toothpicks in our kitchens. Just remember to pick with care, OK?

Aside from the irrational fear of cougars, a larger question looms here: Who “owns” the wildlife in Nebraska? Is it just the hunters, outfitters, ranchers and farmers? Or is it all Nebraskans?

If cougars -- and all of our wildlife and natural resources, including our badly mismanaged groundwater -- are determined to be a part of the commons, shouldn’t all Nebraskans have a say in how we manage them?

That is the argument of New York biologist John Laundre, one of the most eminent cougar-ologists in the country. He is vice president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation and author of the book “Phantoms of the Prairie: The Return of Cougars to the Midwest.”

“We need a dramatic change in how wildlife are managed in this country, and the separation of ‘game’ management and wildlife management is the first critical step,” he wrote in a commentary, “Who Owns the Wildlife?” “Let the game agencies with their millions of hunter dollars manage the deer and the ducks, but let new wildlife agencies manage the rest of the wildlife the way they should be managed, based on sound ecological science, not hunter demands.”

Before implementing its mountain lion management plan, the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks invited public comment in 2010. The agency received 112 comments. Ninety-six people expressed displeasure with the agency’s plan to increase the cougar “harvest,” and more than two-thirds of those 96 said they were against the hunting of lions altogether. There were seven comments that were neutral or undecided. Only about 9 percent of those responding favored increased hunting of cougars. Of course, that did not deter the department from deciding to hunt cougars anyway.

The reality is that a growing majority of Nebraskans -- and South Dakotans -- want honest-to-goodness wildlife management and environmental stewardship. Both have been sorely lacking.

As one South Dakotan commenter wrote: “It is beyond comprehension why the most rural states are the first to fear and kill a very shy and harmless species.”

Even without an official hunting season, Nebraskans are now allowed to shoot a cougar -- if they are lucky enough to see one. All they have to do is say they felt threatened, aim, fire, and all is fine and dandy. Who will ever know the truth?

But that doesn’t make it any easier to understand why Nebraska feels compelled to allow the hunting of a mere 22 mountain lions whose threat to humans is effectively zilch. That got me wondering: If the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission received a couple of reports about invading two-legged, hairy, carnivorous-looking “creatures,” might it consider starting a hunting season on Bigfoot, too? Why wait to confirm that a creature exists when you can just start shooting at its shadow?

Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News He is an editor and freelance writer in Grand Island, Nebraska.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...