- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers failed for a second time Thursday to override Gov. Dave Heineman’s veto of a bill that would ban mountain lion hunting.

The 28-21 vote drew an angry response from the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ernie Chambers, who believed he had secured the 30 senators required to push the measure into law.

Chambers blasted senators as “sniveling, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed cowards,” for bowing to pressure from hunting groups that oppose the bill. The second override attempt came one day after senators fell six votes short on their first try.

Heineman argued in his veto message that state wildlife officials should have the power to regulate the mountain lion population through a controlled hunting season.

Chambers, a well-known wildlife advocate, said the animals are “shy, reclusive, unoffending animals,” and their population in Nebraska is so small that management isn’t necessary.

Wildlife officials have previously estimated that about 22 live in the Pine Ridge region in northwest Nebraska. Chambers said the mountain lions are unlikely to stray beyond the heavily forested region, into other parts of Nebraska.

“There is not habitat for them in other parts of the state … to result in any significant increase in these animals throughout the entire state,” he said.

Nebraska approved its mountain lion hunting season in 2012. Mountain lions are native to Nebraska, but were virtually wiped out by early settlers. The first modern-day sighting was in 1991, but no attacks have been reported since.

Had the bill passed, Paul Hotz, of Gordon, would have been the last Nebraska hunter to legally bag a cougar. Hotz, 33, shot and killed a 102-pound female last month in the Pine Ridge area. Hotz said the mountain lion was tagged west of Rapid City, S.D., about seven miles into Wyoming - and 150 miles from where it was killed. He was one of the 100 Nebraskans with a mountain lion permit won in a state lottery.

Hotz said he was happy that lawmakers upheld the governor’s veto, and he doubted that hunting would hurt the population. Mountain lions are still extremely rare in the area, he said, but some families with children and livestock have reported seeing them near their homes.

“I don’t think a lot of people back east really understand it,” Hotz said. “I’ve had friends who have shot (mountain lions) within 30 yards of their front door.”

Hunting groups praised Thursday’s vote, saying it would allow the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission keep an important wildlife-management tool. The bill was also widely opposed by Nebraska hunters and rural, western senators.

“Obviously, we were concerned,” said Scott Smathers, executive director of the Nebraska Sportsmen’s Foundation. “Sen. Chambers is a skilled individual when it comes to working the floor, whether it’s through threats or promises or deals.”

The vote was a victory for Heineman, whose line-item budget vetoes last week were almost entirely overturned by lawmakers.

Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber acknowledged Thursday that he had agreed to vote in favor of the veto-override so that Chambers wouldn’t try to block some of his bills. Karpisek said he voted against the proposal when it appeared that it was going to fail regardless, but he apologized for reversing course.

“I blew it,” Karpisek said. “I don’t like the bill, but I did give my word, and I broke it. I’m pretty ashamed of myself. I don’t like to win that way, and I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. I made a split-second decision. It was wrong.”

The second senator that Chambers had thought was a “yes” vote was state Sen. Tom Carlson, of Holdrege. Chambers said Carlson initially agreed to support the measure, but later backed away.

Carlson, a Republican candidate for governor, said he had agreed to “reconsider” his opposition to Chambers‘ bill before the override vote, so that Chambers wouldn’t oppose other legislation. But Carlson said he never told Chambers he would support it, and he ended up deciding to maintain his opposition.

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The bill is LB671

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