Officials have confirmed what ranchers claimed for years - mountain lions have returned to the Nebraska Sandhills. Sam Wilson, furbearer and carnivore program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, saw evidence firsthand.
He said cougars were once native to the area, but were wiped out in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Reports of them on the west side of Thomas County resurfaced following a snowstorm in February of 2012. A couple of days later, staff at the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey also called in reports.
Wilson and another biologist investigated both locations and compared evidence that included tracks and feces. Tests revealed the feces at each site came from the same lion.
"It must have traveled from the western part to the eastern part of the county in a few days," Wilson said. "The assumption is that it was from the Pine Ridge area or the Black Hills. Those are the closest confirmed populations. It's possible wildfires pushed them out."
He said so far there isn't any evidence of mountain lions setting up residence in Thomas County because no litters have been found. He said it's more likely they are traveling through along rivers in the area.
"The males are very territorial and will fight to the death to keep other males off their home range," Wilson said. "That's what causes some of the dispersal. When they reach the teenage stage, they fight with the dominant males. If they live through it, the young males tend to kick out and wander."
They have been proven capable of venturing off thousands of miles. Mountain lions from South Dakota have been found as far away as Saskatchewan and Connecticut.
Heath Kursave, Thedford rancher, came across a deer kill along the Loup River recently, which he attributed to the work of a cougar. He said blood from the massive buck was splattered everywhere.
He said there were slices, which looked like they had been made with razor blades, in pieces of hide scattered on the ground. Enormous paw prints were visible around the site. Kursave stumbled across a similar scene further down the river.
"There was deer hair and blood all over, but the carcass was gone," Kursave said. "There were tracks where it had been drug into a grove of trees."
Wilson said mountain lions ambush deer and bite them on the back of the head or the first or second vertebrae of the neck as opposed to coyotes, which bite over and over on the back legs.
"Another thing mountain lions do that coyotes won't is cover their prey with leaves or brush and come back to it over the next five to 10 days," Wilson said. "They do that to hide it from other predators."
The idea of cougars in Thomas County makes Judy Rath of Thedford, nervous. She has two children to protect.
"We had a mountain lion here in 2006 and know other people who have seen them since then," Rath said. "I've thought about putting up game cameras and getting a Great Pyrenees for protection. It's scary."
Wilson encourages the game cameras. He said they are a good way to capture images of mountain lions because the animals like to walk along deer trails. He urged anyone with evidence of a cougar to report it to a game warden or contact him directly at (402) 471-5174 or at email@example.com.