Mountain Lions In The Crosshairs

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?

This story first appeared in High Country News.