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Nebraska governor vetoes bill that would have ended mountain lion hunts

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William "Paul" Hotz shot this 102-pound mountain lion days after Nebraska's first sanctioned hunt of the animals began. (Courtesy: William "Paul" Hotz)

William “Paul” Hotz may not be the last hunter to shoot a mountain lion in Nebraska after all.

Despite strong support from lawmakers to make the first cougar hunt in more than a century the last, Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed a bill Friday to ban mountain lion hunting in Nebraska.

Heineman said in a veto message the state’s Game and Parks Commission should retain the ability to determine those management actions which are necessary to protect both the health and safety of our citizens and the wildlife in our state.

“Removing the agency's authority to manage mountain lions through hunting at this time is poor public policy,” the Republican governor said. He said he was also concerned the bill may be unconstitutional.

Nebraska state senators voted 28-13 for the ban. A veto override needs 30 votes.

The veto came a day after Hotz, a 33-year-old grammar school phys ed teacher, told FoxNews.com how he became the last of three Nebraskans to kill a mountain lion in 2014, after state issued permits to hunt the big cats for the first time this winter.

“Removing the agency's authority to manage mountain lions through hunting at this time is poor public policy.”

- Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman

Mountain lions are native to Nebraska but disappeared in the late 1800s after settlers hunted them in massive numbers. The first confirmed sighting in the state in more than 100 years took place in 1991. Over the next two decades, their numbers increased, particularly in the northwestern part of the state.

The state Legislature passed a law in 2012 to hold this year's cougar hunting season with the aim of keeping their numbers in check in Nebraska’s rugged Pine Ridge region. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission believes the region is home to about two dozen mountain lions.

The commission said hunters could kill four mountain lions in Pine Ridge but that if a female cougar was killed before the quota was filled, the season would end.

Hunters shot two male cats in January. One of the hunters paid $13,000 to obtain a cougar hunting license at an auction. The other hunter won his permit in a lottery.

Hotz was also a lottery winner along with 99 other hunters who were allowed to hunt cougars from Feb. 15 to March 31.

He and a friend started hunting on Feb. 26. They immediately got lucky when they spotted a big cat on a hillside near the South Dakota border.

“We had a good amount of snow two days earlier and that helped,” he said.

It was the first time he had ever seen a mountain lion. “You can spend days in the pines searching and calling and never see a cougar,” he said.

Hotz shot the cougar in the neck from a distance of about 250 yards with his 25.06 Remington rifle.

He described the hunt as a “once in a lifetime experience.”

The female mountain lion he shot had been tagged as a cub in Wyoming. The cat was five years old and weighed 102 pounds.

Because it was a female, Hotz' kill ended the state's hunt.

The failed effort to end Nebraska’s mountain lion hunt was led by Omaha State Sen. Ernie Chambers, a long-time hunting opponent. Chambers said the relatively small size of the mountain lion population in Pine Ridge didn’t warrant a state-regulated hunt.

“I think it goes more to extermination than to appropriation of wildlife management,” he told FoxNews.com.

But Stacy Swinney, a Dawes County Commissioner, told senators Nebraska has a “serious mountain lion problem.”

“We now have a growing, reproducing number of one of nature’s most fearless, dangerous predators, and they walk through our homesteads at will day or night,” she said.