LINCOLN, Nebraska — Nebraska's longest-serving senator vowed Thursday to outlaw mountain lion hunting in Nebraska even if he has to circumvent a legislative committee to bring it to a vote.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said Nebraska's mountain lion population is so small that the state has no need for a hunting season. As of June, the Game and Parks Commission estimates that 22 mountain lions lived in northwest Nebraska's Pine Ridge region, one of the few habitable areas for the animals.
"Wildlife is a resource for everyone in this state, not just hunters and people who want to see one through a rifle scope," Chambers told the Natural Resources Committee.
Chambers said he objects to hunting tactics such as using dogs to chase mountain lions up a tree and shooting them when they have no way to escape. His bill to end Nebraska's state-sanctioned hunting faces opposition from some committee members, who view it as a useful tool to control the population.
Chambers said that if the committee doesn't send his bill to a vote in the Legislature this year, he'll try to pull it out using procedural motions. If that fails, the longtime animal welfare advocate said he'll attach it as an amendment to other bills.
"I'm not going to try to change your mind, but I'm letting you know — be ready for whatever happens," he said. "... We will be talking about mountain lions all session."
Chambers came close to passing similar legislation last year, but it was vetoed by former Gov. Dave Heineman. Chambers attempted twice to override the veto, and when that failed he attached it as an amendment to every bill awaiting a vote on the session's final day.
The Game and Parks Commission opposes the bill, saying it wants the authority to manage the mountain lion population through hunting. The commission plans to spend $60,000 annually over the next three years for research that could help keep the population sustainable, said Jim Douglas, the executive director.
Hunting groups and the Sidney-based retail outfitting chain Cabela's testified against the bill, saying state biologists should decide how to preserve the population.
"The decision should be made on a scientific basis, not a political basis," said Kevin Werts, an executive at Cabela's.
Western Nebraska senators also oppose the bill, raising concerns about attacks on livestock.
Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala, the committee chairman, said he opposed the bill but was willing to support state funding for research into ways to control the population. Schilz said lawmakers should trust Game and Parks experts to manage the animals responsibly.
Lawmakers approved mountain-lion hunting in 2012, while Chambers was out of office due to term limits.
Mountain lions are native to Nebraska, but vanished in the late 1800s after settlers started poisoning and hunting them. Nebraska has four areas where mountain lion hunting is permitted, and the commission determines which areas can sustain hunting each session.
The Game and Parks Commission canceled this year's hunting season after at least seven mountain lions were killed outside of the official 2014 season. Some were hunted illegally, trapped or struck by vehicles. Those seven died before the Game and Parks estimated the Pine Ridge population was 22, so the number prior to that was likely higher.
Last year, nearly 400 people applied for one of 100 available permits in northwest Nebraska's Pine Ridge district, where most mountain lions are believed to reside.
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