Photo Safaris Offer Different Kind of Mountain Lion Hunting
By Suzy Loeffler
The rugged landscape is softened by the early dawn light. We step out of the all-terrain vehicle. The team is here, Brady Dunne, Jason Knight, and the blue tick hounds, Molly, Titan, and Maximus. We are near McKenzie Creek on the east edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau. It took about an hour to get here from Telluride.
There is a sense of peace as we look out over the canyon rim, but there is also excitement, and anticipation of the adventure to come. Dunne spots some tracks. “A big tom,” he says.
Brady Dunne and Jason Knight have an intimate knowledge of this area. Brady has been working on the Uncompahgre plateau since 2006, when he first started working on the Uncompahgre Puma Project as a capture specialist. “That was when the idea for Bodhi expeditions began,” says Dunne. “I thought that the public should be able to experience this.”
Knight sets the hounds loose on the trail. He has been running hounds on the Uncompahgre Plateau for over 20 years. He grew up in the area, hunting and fishing. Knight and Dunne met on the Uncompahgre Puma Project in 2008. They both agreed that a collaboration was important to promote the mountain lion population in Southwest Colorado, and to provide a similar means of conservation all over the west. “The idea is an evolved form of hunting photo safari open to the public to increase social and economic support for the development of optimal wildlife management practices,” says Dunne.
The mountain lion is one of the least photographed of North America’s wild animals. They are incredibly elusive and rarely seen, but Dunne and Knight can get anyone within 25 feet of a lion.
The dogs are bawling intensely. They have treed the big tom. I ask Dunne if using the dogs to trail and tree the cats is harmful to them. He explains that although there are no longer wolves in Colorado, wolves and mountain lions shared territories for thousands of years, and evolved together. The cats could always find safety in the trees. He also makes it clear that they have used dogs to tree cats for wildlife studies, where they capture the cat then collar them for tracking, and they have seen no negative effect to the collared animals.
We climb down the side of the steep canyon, where the dogs are barking. The cat is about 20 feet above the ground in a big old Ponderosa tree. My heart is beating fast, and I’m a little out of breath. I ask Brady if there is a danger being this close to a wild mountain lion. He tells me that they are one of the least aggressive of all cats. He says he has treed hundreds of lions, and never had an incident of aggression.
Jason calls off the dogs. Silence falls over us. The treed lion is still looking wary of us. Brady tells us we have about two hours to observe and take photos.
Spending the day with Brady you will learn about mountain lions, but you will also learn about other local inhabitants of the land, and the sky. Brady has worked in wildlife biology for 15 years, and he’s spent all of those years in the field. As we stalk the lion he will identify a distant bird call, or a raptor circling, and will explain their migration patterns, their habitat, their calls, and their songs. He will point out tracks of other animals like fox, bobcat, coyote, elk, and deer. His time in the wilderness has afforded him astute observation skills, and he is truly passionate about the wild animals and birds of the area.
Large carnivores are his specialty, but Brady has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of all the creatures of the ecosystems he works in. He has worked in Montana with wolves, wolverines, grizzly bears, lynx, and bobcats. He has also worked in Colorado with raptors, song birds, and many other species.
Bodhi Expeditions offers photo expeditions in all seasons to observe bear, elk, deer, big horn sheep, raptors, and songbirds. His web site has details about all the seasons’ offerings. The safaris require different levels of skill, and endurance, but Brady can design a tour for any skill set. He has a small fleet of four wheel and all terrain vehicles to access remote areas of the plateau.
The treed lion has relaxed into his nook in the old snag. It is thrilling to be so close to a mountain lion. The sun has reached our little spot in the canyon, providing some warmth to the chilly morning. Brady tells us a little about this majestic being we are observing.
The mountain lion or puma has earned the nickname “Ghost of the Rockies” because their presence is felt, but rarely seen. They are elusive, inhabiting remote canyons, and plateaus, and hunting mostly at night. They are amazing hunters, with keen hearing and sight, coupled with remarkable speed, strength, and agility. They weigh between 80 and 200 pounds. They are native to the Americas, and have the largest range of any large carnivore in the western hemisphere—from Canada to the southern Andes. Their main source of food is ungulates, predominantly deer, and elk.
They do prey on livestock from time to time, which is where some of the misunderstanding and conflict begins between pumas and humans. As cities and towns expand they infringe further into lion territory. Remedial hunting, or sport hunting, was implemented to manage mountain lion populations believing it would lessen their interactions with people and impacts on livestock, and also help with the management of ungulate populations.
A study in 2013, and previous studies on the effects of remedial hunting, were interestingly paradoxical. They found that livestock predation and human-puma conflict increased with each lion taken. The reason is that the hunting usually targets more mature cats in wild places. The more mature cats have learned to avoid areas where there will be human interaction. This leaves younger cats, particularly males, moving into territories where they are more likely to approach humans.
Brady started Bodhi Expeditions to expand awareness of the delicate balance that exists in the ecosystems of the west, and the social imbalance in the management. “We need to add value to wildlife in order to get the public to support their conservation. Right now the only monetary value is in hunting. We want to change that by bringing in another form of income for conservation through tourism.”
Brady has been a carnivore researcher for over a decade, and believes that the Bodhi concept is the “missing link needed to catalyze the evolution of wildlife conservation in North America and the rest of the planet.”
The way he envisions this happening is by including wildlife watchers into the mix. Seventy-eight percent of the revenue for state agencies is supported through hunting tags. If there were money coming in from people who simply want to observe and photograph wild animals and wild places it would enhance the conservation of many wildlife species. When Brady and Jason tree a cat, it is strictly to shoot photos and check out the animal. “Photo hunting and wildlife watching will help support state agencies and bring money to local economies,” says Dunne. “Being with wildlife and in wild places enhances your consciousness, and makes you a happier person. That is why the outdoor industry continues to grow. I believe that if people who live mostly in cities and have less access to wild places have an opportunity like this to experience wild nature, they will take it home with them, tell friends, and gain an appreciation that will make a difference.”
Bodhi Expeditions run their safaris on public lands from the Uncompahgre Plateau in Western Colorado to the Abajo mountains in southeastern Utah. The federal lands where they work allow them to use operational permits to access some of the wildest and most scenic places in the Southwest United States. They offer a unique opportunity to interact with wild nature, and learn about the entire ecosystem. To find out more details on the Bodhi safaris go to www.bodhiexpeditions.com.