These days, Jim O'Brien tracks bears and mountain lions with a camera instead of a rifle.
Using the skills he honed in his 33 years working as Sonoma County hunter-trapper, the 68-year-old O'Brien hikes the mountains and canyons near his Knights Valley home, making amazingly close-up photos of his wild neighbors.
He estimates that he has taken more photos of mountain lions than he killed (“took” is the word he uses) in his three decades as the protector of livestock.
His wildlife photo archive includes bears, coyotes and bobcats along with the lions — the same critters that he once hunted.
“Actually, I prefer it this way,” he says. “But my job (out of the agricultural commissioner's office) was to help the ranchers by eliminating the ones known to be active stock killers — particularly of sheep and goats — and particularly coyotes.” It's still the job of his successor, Jeff Furlong.
O'Brien, known in the ag office as “OB,” looks like the mountain man he is. He acknowledges that the need to kill these animals is sad, but quickly adds that it's necessary. “Say you've got sheep and goats and a lion comes in and whacks half a dozen of your flock. That's sad too, particularly for the people with just a few animals.”
He mentions a little girl he remembers who lost all the goats in her 4-H project to a lion.
BEING RETIRED (since 2007), he follows his pack of dogs — a breed from the Appalachians known as mountain curs — two or three times a week, hiking up the slopes of Mount St. Helena and on the ranches bordering Knights Valley and Pine Flat.
He says he “goes almost everywhere you can see from the valley. I've got permission from the ranchers and even the preserves, since people know what I'm doing.”
And what he's not doing.
Tracking dogs have been a part of his life for so long, O'Brien says, that “the dogs are probably my main reason for going. If it wasn't for the dogs, I'm not sure I'd have these photos. It's hard to explain. I guess it's being in the hills. And it's non-consumptive hunting, if you know what I mean.