Wildlife Species Guide
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Mountain Lions in Nebraska
Although mountain lions were part of Nebraska's native fauna, they were extirpated by the end of the 19th century. Despite annual reports since the 1950s, no confirmed sighting was made in the state until the 1990s. In 1991 mountain lion tracks were found and shortly after, an adult mountain lion was shot by a hunter near Harrison, in Sioux County.
Below are some facts about the return of these animals to Nebraska:
NEBRASKAland Magazine recently published several stories about the return of these animals to Nebraska. NEBRASKAland article on mountain lions.
- The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's goal is to maintain mountain lion populations in Nebraska over the long-term.
- Nebraska has three documented mountain lion populations; the largest is in the Pine Ridge, where part of the state's inaugural mountain lion hunting season was held in 2014. The Niobrara Valley and Wildcat Hills also have populations, and those areas have remained closed to hunting. There are likely additional mountain lions elsewhere in the state. For more information on mountain lion hunting in Nebraska, please visit our mountain lion hunting page.
- Mountain lions in Nebraska are part of the larger population that spans all Western states, and animals move freely between Nebraska and neighboring states, particularly South Dakota and Wyoming.
- The most recent population survey of mountain lions in the Pine Ridge, conducted in May and June of 2014, estimated a population of 22 animals in that specific area. However, population estimates only apply to a specific point in time.
- All populations continually change in size due to births and deaths as well as animals that enter or leave the area. It is not accurate to only subtract deaths from a population estimate without accounting for additions through births and animals entering or leaving the area over time.
- Due to an increase in non-hunting related mountain lion mortalities during 2014, there will be no hunting season during 2015.
The map below lists only those observations that have been confirmed based on unambiguous evidence. The confirmations on the map do not necessarily represent individual mountain lions as a single mountain lion may be confirmed multiple times as it moves through the countryside.
Click Map Below to View Confirmed Mountain Lion Presence in Nebraska from 1991 to the Present
Distribution and Recent Expansion of Mountain Lions
Arrows above depict known or suspected interchange of animals among breeding populations. Mountain lions – particularly subadults – can travel long distances in search of new territory. This not only allows for healthy genetic interchange, but it can replenish populations through new immigration. Most mountain lions documented in the eastern part of the state have been subadult males, which typically travel farther than young females. Nebraska is presently conducting research that may help detect local and regional movements of individual lions.
Wildfires and Puma Family - Sam Wilson
View Dick Turpin's
video on an encounter with a Mountain Lion
Learn More: Mountain Lion Scat Study
The majority of confirmed mountain lion observation reports come from the panhandle area in
close proximity to Colorado, Wyoming or South Dakota, all states with extant mountain lion
populations. On the other hand, the majority of reports that could not be confirmed coincide
with areas of high human population density. Two factors may be responsible for this clustering
of unconfirmed reports in areas with denser human population. First, the more people live in
an area the greater the number of possible observations and thus reports. Second, an initial
report that becomes public (regardless of whether it is confirmed or not) can cause biases in
future observers, thus potentially causing a chain reaction of additional observation reports.
Bobcats, coyotes, dogs, and domestic cats are often mistaken for mountain lions. Mountain lions may travel using riparian corridors along streams and rivers and
could remain unnoticed for long distances even in populated areas. Confirmations over the last few decades have shown that mountain lions can travel anywhere in the state.
Mountain lions (also called cougar, puma, panther, painter, catamount) vary in size and weight. Males
(100 to 160 lbs.) are larger and heavier than females (60 to 100 lbs.). They are generally
uniformly tan in color with a black tipped tail and darker spots behind the ears. Juveniles
have dark spots and a dark-ringed tail until they are about 1 year of age.
Mountain lions occur in a variety of habitats, but prefer rougher, wooded areas.
Cover for stalking and prey abundance are probably the most essential components of mountain lion
habitat. Mountain lions are most active from dusk to dawn, but will also move during the day.
Deer are the choice prey but mountain lions will also prey on elk, bighorn sheep, small game,
porcupines, and a variety of other species.
After killing their prey, mountain lions often drag or carry the carcass under a bush or
tree. After feeding, the carcass is often covered with litter to avoid detection by scavengers.
Mountain lions are commonly identified by trail camera photographs, tracks and feces.
Reporting a mountain lion observation
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is interested in verifying mountain lion observations in
Nebraska. If you have evidence of a mountain lion (such as a trail camera photo, video, tracks, feces, hair,
etc.) please call your nearest NGPC office and we will investigate the observation. If you are
not certain if the tracks you found are from a mountain lion, please consult the track comparison
shown below. Cover the tracks with buckets to prevent destruction and inform the NGPC. If you take photos of sign, please include a ruler or pen in the picture for size reference, and take photos of more than one track in the track line.
If you encounter a possible mountain lion kill (deer or livestock), please leave the kill
site undisturbed and inform your nearest NGPC office immediately. We will then attempt to
record a possible revisitation to identify the predator.
The images above show tracks made by the front paws. Mountain lion front tracks are 3" to 4 1/4"
long and 3 1/4" to 4 3/4" wide. Size alone cannot be used to distinguish mountain
lion tracks as many dog tracks are as large, or larger, than mountain lion tracks.
Claws usually do not register because they are retracted.
Claw marks are usually (but not always) visible in coyote and dog tracks. The heal pad
in cat tracks has two lobes in the front and three lobes in the back, while dog and
coyote tracks show only one lobe in the front and two lobes in the back. The tracks from
a small mountain lion and a large bobcat can be difficult to distinguish.
Due to their secretive nature and low density, mountain lions rarely interact with humans. Occasional
interactions may occur with increased human activities in natural areas and mountain lion immigration
into populated areas with high deer densities. Mountain lions are currently listed as a game species and may only be taken during open harvest seasons.
- Do not approach a mountain lion.
- Leave the animal an avenue of escape.
- Stay calm, move slowly.
- Back away safely if you can. Do not turn your back to the lion or start running.
- Raise your arms or backpack to appear larger.
- Lift up your children to prevent them from running.
- If you are being attacked fight back. Mountain lion have been successfully driven off with bare hands. Use rocks, or whatever you can get your hands on. Try to remain on your feet or get back up if knocked down.
Considering that mountain lions have established populations in three areas, and they are managed as a game animal with the goal of maintaining mountain lion populations in Nebraska over the long-term, it is likely that the future of mountain lions in the state is secure. State law presently allows for responses to individual animals that may threaten human safety or depredate on livestock and a management plan
will continue to provide protocols for handling a variety of situations involving mountain lions
A combination of understanding and tolerance will allow us to coexist with mountain lions
and prevent us from repeating the mistake of extirpating this magnificent feline from Nebraska