By GRANT SCHULTE | Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Hunters who want to kill mountain lions for sport in Nebraska could soon be out of luck, due to a bill penned by a longtime state senator who has championed animal welfare issues.
Lawmakers gave initial approval Friday to Sen. Ernie Chamber's bill that would end Nebraska's mountain lion hunt, despite opposition from rural western senators. Lawmakers approved mountain-lion hunting in 2012, after Chambers was briefly forced from office because of term limits.
The measure includes exceptions for farmers and ranchers if mountain lions threaten their property, and would allow people to defend themselves if attacked. But Chambers, of Omaha, said such scenarios are unlikely because the animals pose no real threat to humans.
Mountain lions are native to Nebraska, but vanished in the late 1800s after settlers started poisoning and hunting them.
"The Legislature has an obligation, in my opinion, to properly protect native species," Chambers said. "Mountain lions, cougars were native to Nebraska. They were exterminated entirely."
Chambers also objected to using dogs to track the mountain lions and chase them into trees, where they're easy targets.
"These animals have been called the phantoms of the Plains, the ghosts of the forests, because they're not seen," he said. "... If a hunter was required to track the animal, the hunter has about a 1 to 2 percent chance of success."
Opponents argued that wildlife management is best left to the state Game and Parks Commission.
"We should allow Game and Parks to do their job," said Sen. Ken Schilz, of Ogallala. "We should (recognize) that the Legislature that put this in place a few years ago did what they were authorized to do.
"And I'd hope that we aren't going to jump back and forth on issues like this, and make it look like we don't know what we're doing."
Schilz pointed to incidents in Washington state and Colorado, where people and pet dogs were attacked by mountain lions.
Nebraska has four areas where mountain lion hunting is permitted, and the commission determines which areas can sustain hunting each session.
In this year's hunting session, which is broken into two parts, permit holders can hunt in the Pine Ridge area in the northern panhandle and a prairie area. The season ends when two males or one female are killed. Hunters killed two male mountain lions in the Pine Ridge area, in northwest Nebraska, in January.
Game and Parks officials estimate that 22 mountain lions live in the Pine Ridge area, where 102 hunting permits were issued.
Lawmakers advanced the measure on a 31-5 vote. Two more votes are required before the bill goes to Gov. Dave Heineman.