Monday, August 31, 2009

Trail cam catches cougar in Nebraska

Published Saturday August 22, 2009

They're back.

Not that they were gone.

A trail camera mounted on a leaning boxelder tree in northwest Nebraska's Pine Ridge captured an image of a mountain lion as it roamed out of a creek bed on Aug. 15.

“I about had a heart attack when I saw that picture. I thought, ‘No way!''' said 19-year-old Joe Krotz of Rushville.

The adult cougar is seen turning up an old logging road and steep hill after passing by a field of wheat stubble. The photo was snapped at 8:42 p.m., nearly an hour after sunset.

About an hour earlier, the camera snapped a photo of a fawn.

Like other big game hunters, Krotz set up the camera to capture images of deer and other wildlife without invading the habitat and spooking animals. The devices take snapshots of wildlife that cross the path of the lens. The image is stored on a digital card retrieved later.

Krotz, who hunts mule and whitetail deer, set out the camera July 29.

He selected family ranchland 11 miles northwest of Rushville on White Clay Creek. Krotz's uncle and grandmother own adjoining farmland in the area.

He has four pictures from the camera of a tall, eight-point whitetail buck passing by the same spot the cougar crossed.

“I just wanted to see what's there,'' he said. “I really wasn't expecting to get a predator. I've seen bobcats and coyotes, but never a cougar. People who live here know they're out there.''

Mountain lion sightings in the Pine Ridge are rare but not uncommon.

Cougars were driven or hunted from Nebraska more than a century ago. There have been more than 70 confirmed mountain lion sightings — many are duplicates and most from the Pine Ridge of northwest Nebraska — since the first authenticated evidence of their return to the state in 1991.

Today, cougars cannot be hunted or trapped in Nebraska. People, however, are permitted to defend themselves without penalty if a mountain lion attacks or shows unprovoked aggression toward people.

Last winter, a trail camera and tracks in snow confirmed the arrival of a mountain lion near the Loup River west of Columbus. In Scottsbluff, game wardens tranquilized and euthanized a female cougar wounded by a police officer. It was the sixth confirmed sighting of a female in Nebraska.

At least two groups of deer hunters spotted a cougar kitten with its mother in the Pine Ridge hills south of Chadron. A Nebraska Game and Parks Commission trail camera captured snapshots of the pair feeding on the carcass of a mule deer in December.

A young Alliance deer hunter shot a female mountain lion that appeared poised to attack last November.

An Omaha hunter and his son filed an unconfirmed report of a cougar near Gibbon in south central Nebraska on opening day of the November rifle deer season.

The Game and Parks Commission's standard for confirming a sighting is simple. If there's evidence of a mountain lion, the sighting is confirmed. When there's not tangible evidence, it's not confirmed.

Evidence includes hair, tracks, scat, a dead deer with mountain lion markings, blood tested for DNA, a cougar carcass or a photo.

Krotz is sophomore metallurgical engineering major at South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City, S.D. He plans to return home more often this fall.

“I want to change out the memory cards and see what's there,'' he said.

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