A new year and a new season.
As you’ve probably heard by now, Nebraska’s first two permit holders for mountain lion season in the Pine Ridge were successful Thursday. The season has garnered a lot of attention, being Nebraska’s first.
With photography equipment in hand, I accompanied Holden Bruce, the 16-year-old hunter from Franklin, one of the two permit holders. He came to northwest Nebraska with his father, Jeremy, and older brother, Tristan.
We set out early New Year’s Day on fresh snow northeast of Harrison with a hunting party that included experienced mountain lion tracker Deric Anderson, his 17-year-old son Donnie, and their dogs, Miley and Bentley. Anderson, who lives near Newcastle, Neb., and has a ranch in Sioux County, offered assistance to Holden and lined up permission from neighboring landowners prior to the hunt.
We hiked some of the most rugged and scenic country in the state but weren’t able to get on a mountain lion’s trail the first day. Anderson saw evidence of a mountain lion in a deep ravine the previous night, but the cat had apparently left the area as no fresh tracks could be found in the new snow.
The group took to the field again at daybreak Thursday. Things started slowly, but by mid-morning began to heat up – both literally and figuratively. Anderson’s friend and hunting partner Jerry Stewart, who also lives near Newcastle and ranches in Sioux County, had located cougar tracks near Sowbelly Creek to the west.
With snow melting, and along with it the cougar tracks, time became a more valuable commodity by the minute. The dogs and their handlers zeroed in on the cat as Donnie and one of the dogs followed tracks up the creek. Donnie found evidence of a freshly killed animal along the way, which looked like the work of a mountain lion. With the help of Miley and Bentley, Holden bagged a 102-pound tom by 1 p.m. – giving the sophomore plenty of time to check the cat in that day and return to Franklin by start of school Monday.
After the hunt, and after regaining cell phone reception, I learned that the other hunter was successful earlier that day. I soon arrived at the Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area field office south of Crawford in time to see the big male cougar that was shot by hunter Tom Ferry of Ponca with the help of guides Doug Dillon and Chance, Haley and Austin Soester, all of Crawford. The biologists who checked in the cat estimated it to be 150 pounds.
Holden won his permit by lottery with a $15 application fee and Ferry won his for $13,500 at auction, providing funds for the state’s conservation efforts.
With the two-male quota in the bag, the first season in the Pine Ridge unit ended well ahead of its scheduled date of Feb. 14. A second Pine Ridge season, with a quota of two toms, or one female if it’s shot first, is set for the next 100 lottery winners without the use of dogs Feb. 15-March 31. Hunting in the Prairie Unit, which includes the vast majority of the state outside areas with a reproducing population, is open for permit holders now through the end of the year. An unlimited number of permits are being issued for that unit. The use of dogs is allowed there through March 31.
The state’s first permitted mountain lion hunt, which was also my first, is something I’ll long remember. Similar to many Nebraska residents, I will be watching closely to see what the remainder of the season brings.