LINCOLN — While the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is researching mountain lions in the state, motorists are showing their interest in the wild cats, forking over extra money to purchase mountain lion conservation plates.
To date, more than 8,700 people have chosen the mountain lion conservation specialty plates for their vehicles. The Department of Motor Vehicles has passed on more than $92,000 to the Game and Parks Commission's youth wildlife education conservation fund.
The plates, which cost an extra $5 -- or $35 for a special message -- went on sale Oct. 1 after lawmakers approved a bill to create the plates sponsored by state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha.
Chambers introduced a bill again this year to prohibit hunting of the animals, but the bill was not advanced from the Natural Resources Committee.
In the past six months, the plate's applications have surpassed a previous top seller, military honors plates, by at least 3,000, said Betty Johnson of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Game and Parks Commission had a discussion of the plates during a report Friday of a study on the big cats led by Sam Wilson, program manager of fur bearers and carnivores, at a meeting in Norfolk.
Mountain lions are primarily in three areas of the state: the Niobrara River Valley, Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills, although they've been spotted in a wide variety of places. The commission is studying them to learn their habits and numbers and track their moving patterns. The research will run through 2019, Wilson said.
Nebraska's on the western edge of a large population of mountain lions that runs through the Rocky Mountains to California. A larger population than Nebraska's is north of the state in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The commission's role has been to conserve mountain lions, rather than preserve them, which is to set them aside and leave them alone.
Researchers are specifically doing genetic studies in the Pine Ridge in May and June, Wilson said. They should have population estimates for the Pine Ridge in the late fall. Older estimates have shown there were 22 to 33 lions in that area.
During the study, 17 mountain lions are wearing collars, 15 in the Pine Ridge and two in Wildcat Hills, Wilson said, and researchers are trying to collar as many as they can.
No hunting season has been scheduled while studies are being conducted.
One discovery researchers have made is that mountain lions have probably killed five bighorn sheep in the state in the past year, four ewes and a ram. The commission is also studying the sheep to learn more about their habitat and mortality of ewes and lambs.