Nebraska’s No. 1 champion of mountain lions, Ernie Chambers, weighs in on Omaha sightings

By: - August 6, 2023 2:44 pm

The longest-serving Nebraska lawmaker, Ernie Chambers, shows his Nebraska mountain lion license plate. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — Nebraska’s No. 1 champion of mountain lions has been watching all the fuss and fascination in the news media over one of the big cats mysteriously making its way around southwest Omaha.

And former State Sen. Ernie Chambers — who during his 46 years in the Legislature tried to outlaw the hunting of mountain lions in the state — said it’s times like this that he wishes he was still in office.

Ernie Chambers’ personalized license plate features the mountain lion, which he says is not a threat to humans. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

He said he’d be pressuring Nebraska Game and Parks and area police officials to seek national expertise on how to capture the animal alive, and without a messy ending.

“If that lion was of a mind to kill anybody and eat anybody in Omaha it would have been done,” said Chambers. “Mountain lions are very shy. They avoid people.”

Some fearful, others welcoming

But the Game and Parks Commission issued a statement reiterating its protocol to kill the mountain lion if it was spotted within city limits, saying public safety is top priority.

Media reports tracking the elusive cat since the first confirmed sighting on a doorbell camera July 24 have drawn mixed emotions.

Several people interviewed by local TV stations were fearful, particularly for their pets and kids. Others were protective of the cat, including some on social media pushing for compassion. KETV showed one homeowner’s water dish, sleeping cushion and sign outside their doorstep: “Welcome to the neighborhood Mountain Lion!” 

Chambers, 86, pointed out his preference to the Nebraska Examiner after he spoke at an unrelated event this weekend.

He pulled up to the venue in his gray Honda, which has license plates sporting an image of a mountain lion. The lettering: CUGR 1.

Chambers had pressed for the specialized cougar Nebraska plate after his effort to stop mountain lion hunting failed to override a veto by then-Gov. Dave Heineman.

The extra money Nebraskans pay for a mountain lion plate goes to a fund to provide education programs on wildlife conservation practices. Chambers said he was granted the inaugural cougar plate.

Defense of solitary animal

Asked about the sightings that have had the Omaha metro area abuzz, Chambers shared his thought: “That I need to be in the Legislature so I could have some influence in terms of what the Game and Parks Commission and even these local police agencies would do.”

He recalled how he fought against budget increases for the commission, which supported the hunt of mountain lions that are native to Nebraska but were eliminated by the early 1900s due to poisoning, trapping and hunting. The first modern confirmation of a return to the state, according to the commission, was in 1991.

“I didn’t want them killed for nothing, especially for these ‘big shots’ who wanted to come in and pay the money,” Chambers said.

He defended the “solitary” animal as a natural inhabitant of the state that does not live in a pride, or group.

“They were not bothering anybody. They were not killing a lot of stock. Eagles take more baby livestock than mountain lions ever did,” he said.

But in the ongoing case, the mountain lion was spotted on camera strolling close to homes near the Papillion Creek in southwest Omaha and Sarpy County. 

Chambers said he has tuned in to reports of the animal’s actions and concluded it wasn’t being interested in humans.

He quipped: “This mountain lion won’t eat a Nebraskan. They got better taste than that.” 

Tips on cougar encounters

Nebraska Game and Parks officials reminded people in a news alert that “mountain lion attacks are rare.”

The public agency says the animals — called cougars, pumas and other names — in Nebraska are part of a larger population that moves between western and neighboring states, particularly South Dakota and Wyoming.

A six-month-old male mountain lion at the Omaha zoo. (Courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/NE Game and Parks Commission)

Genetic surveys conducted between 2010 and 2019 indicated that the Nebraska population of cougars in the Pine Ridge ranged from 22 to 59, with the most recent survey from 2019 estimating 34 total animals.

Game and Parks officials said a mountain lion found within city limits will be killed if it can be done, in order to ensure public safety. They said it cannot be relocated for reasons including that Nebraska does not have large tracts of public land with adequate habitat for the animal.

The state is 98% privately owned, the agency said, and a mountain lion that is moved could quickly enter private land.

The commission said zoos typically do not accept adult mountain lions that have lived in the wild, saying they’re stressed by people and confinement and “do not do well in zoos.”

Tranquilizers can take up to 10 minutes to take effect, the commission said, and if the drugged animal darts away during that time, it might cross into a populated area or traffic or be difficult to relocate.

Should someone encounter a mountain lion, Game and Parks recommends staying calm, backing away safely if possible, and leaving the animal an avenue of escape.

One should raise arms or a backpack to appear large and lift up children to prevent them from running.

The commission also recommends fighting back if attacked, as cougars have been driven off with bare hands, and getting back up if knocked down.

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.

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