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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 a deer was found killed by a mountain lion 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. Read the story in the January issue.
- The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's goal is to maintain mountain lion populations in Nebraska over the long-term.
- Nebraska has three 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.
- No decision has been made on whether there will be a mountain lion season in 2015.
Mountain Lion Sightings
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
We now have breeding populations in three areas: the Pine Ridge, Niobrara River Valley and Wildcat Hills, and we typically have a few mountain lions roaming other parts of the state as well.
Arrows above depict known or suspected interchange of animals among breeding populations. Nebraska is contemplating additional research to help detect local and regional movements of individual lions.
The Commission's goal is to maintain mountain lion populations in Nebraska over the long-term as we do with all game animals.
Our mountain lion populations are part of a larger regional population where animals are continually mixing. We are on the eastern edge of a population of thousands of mountain lions that stretches from the northern plains to the Pacific Ocean.
Wildfires and Puma Family - Sam Wilson
Mountain Lions in Nebraska Video - 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. Despite
these factors, mountain lion occurences in the central and eastern portions of the state are
certainly possible. Animals may migrate using riparian corridors along streams and rivers and
could remain unnoticed for long distances even in populated areas.
Mountain lions (also called cougar, puma, panther, painter, catamount) vary in size and weight. Males
(100 to 150 lbs.) are larger and heavier than females (55 to 90 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.
Prey abundance, especially deer, is probably the most essential component 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.
Other sign by which mountain lions can be identified are their tracks, feces, scrapes, and
scratches on tree trunks.
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 video, photo, 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.
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 and to identify the predator.
The images above show front tracks. 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 human infringement on 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 the harvest season.
- 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 the recent confirmed sightings of mountain lions and the large number of deer
in the state, it is likely that additional mountain lions will be encountered in Nebraska.
Individual animals and perhaps even a small population exist in the western portions of the
state such as the Fort Robinson and Wildcat Hills areas. It is doubtful that a population
will establish itself in areas where human population density and associated habitat disturbance
is high. Encounters, however, in those areas are not impossible considering the large distances
that individual animals, especially young males, can travel. In addition, it is possible
that some animals were illegally released or escaped from captivity. 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
Benedict, R.A., H.H. Genoways., and P.W. Freeman. 2000. Shifting distributional patterns of mammals in Nebraska. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences. 26:55-84.
Jones, J.K. Jr. 1962. Early records of some mammals from Nebraska. Bulletin of the University of Nebraska State Museum. 4(6):88-99.
Jones, J.K. Jr. 1949. The occurrence of the mountain lion in Nebraska. Journal of Mammalogy. 30(3):313.
Jones, J.K. Jr.1964. Distribution and Taxonomy of Mammals of Nebraska. University of Kansas Publications. Museum of Natural History. 36:299-302.
Linnell, J.D.C., J. Odden,M.E. Smith, R. Aanes, and J.E. Swenson. 1999. Large carnivores that kill livestock: do "problem individuals" really exist? Wildlife Society Bulletin. 27(3)698-705.
Logan, K.A. and L.L. Irwin. 1985. Mountain lion habitats in the Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 13:257-262.
Lindzey, F. 1987. In Novak, M., J.A. Baker, M.E. Obbard., and B. Malloch. Wild Furbearer Management and Conservation in North America. p657-668
McKinney, B. 1996. A field guide to Texas mountain lions. Wildlife Division, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.