Mountain lions have returned to their former homes in the Midwest.
Some welcome the return of the big cats; others wish to persecute them as before. What will be the outcome?
That is the question posed by Valerie Vierk of Ravenna, who has published a book titled “Mountain Lions in Nebraska — The Golden Ghosts Return.”
Seven years in the making, the 600-page book contains 90 black and white photos, plus charts, maps and political cartoons to document the return of the big cats to Nebraska.
Although native to Nebraska, the lions, also called cougars, were extirpated by about 1900 due to unrestricted hunting and the loss of deer, their main prey. Although there were occasional unverified sightings after 1900, it wasn’t until November 1991 that a young female was killed by a deer hunter in northwest Nebraska. This was proof that once again mountain lions were roaming Nebraska.
“The return of mountain lions to their former ranges is often a contentious issue, with some people welcoming them and some not sharing that enthusiasm,” says a news release. “The state wildlife agencies are charged with trying to manage cougars for hunters and non-hunters, and often neither party is happy. Generally, there are three groups that have differing opinions on the big cats — hunters, livestock producers and cougar advocates.”
Vierk, who lives a mile south of Ravenna, has always been fascinated by mountain lions.
She thinks that interest began when her mother read “Little House in the Big Woods” to her as a youngster. A black panther figures in that book, which is part of the “Little House on the Prairie” series.
People in Ravenna remember the appearance of cougar tracks in the Sweet Creek area in 1965, she said. Several sightings in the area have been reported since.
Vierk conducted extensive research on mountain lions in Nebraska, as well as in neighboring states. Since the lion populations are connected, the book has chapters on the six neighboring states — three that legally hunt the lions, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota, and the three that don’t, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.
When the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, mountain lions were roaming over the entire area that would one day be the United States.
“These big tawny cats also roamed north into what would be the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta,” Vierk wrote in a brochure she prepared along with the book. “Additionally, they roamed Central and South America. They had the largest range of any mammal in North America.
“The cougars shared space with the many tribes of Native Americans scattered throughout their range,” Vierk writes in the brochure. “But with the coming of the white man to the virgin land, massive changes would soon be made, and they would not be good for the cougars or the Native Americans.
“The white settlers brought a hatred for the big predators that was deeply ingrained in their minds. These Europeans had killed off most of the predators in their lands years before sailing to America. Thus, when the new settlers arrived in America, they were not used to the lions, bears and wolves that roamed their new home. Often what people fear they also hate, and so wish to destroy it.”
Early in colonial times, bounties were established to eliminate the predators.
“It worked all too well, and by the 1850s cougars were becoming scarce east of the Mississippi River,” Vierk writes. “The deer were also being hunted almost to extermination for the European markets that were hungry for deer skins. Since the cougars’ favorite meal was deer, they struggled to survive.”
By 1900, cougars were believed to be gone from all the states east of the Mississippi except for a small population in south Florida.
“The same held true for the prairie states. Now cougars could only be found in the western states where they could hide out better from the relentless persecution by the white man with his traps, guns and dogs,” Vierk writes.
“Finally, in the 1960s, the bounty system was discontinued and replaced with legal hunting seasons,” she writes. “The cougar populations started to rebound. And then something totally unexpected happened — cougars started showing up in places they hadn’t been seen for almost a hundred years.”
The author addresses the controversy surrounding trophy hunting cougars, which often leaves dependent kittens orphaned.
Additionally, the book contains a chapter on California, which banned trophy hunting of the big cats in 1990.
“Mountain Lions in Nebraska — The Golden Ghosts Return” is Vierk’s sixth book.
Later this week, it will be available at the Sequel Book Shop in the Kearney mall.