HIS YEARS of tracking, with plenty of time to think, have given O'Brien an interesting perspective on wildlife in general and predators, specifically.
He doesn't buy the conventional wisdom that humans have encroached on the animals' habitat, a theory that is supposed to explain why coyotes diminished the once-booming sheep industry in the county or why mountain lions are turning up close to urban areas.
He thinks it's just the opposite.
"The lions are coming into our territory. When I started working here in '74, except for the area along the Lake County border, there were, for all practical purposes, no mountain lions in Sonoma County.
"The old-timers, like Jim Modini, agree with me on this. And I wish the late George Charles (who raised sheep in the northwestern part of the county) were here to attest to that. We didn't ever have a lion involved in sheep preditation back then.
"There were no lions out there, or coyotes for that matter — no coyotes on the coast when I started."
O'Brien's theory is that the "groceries," as he puts it, are scarcer in the high country. There seem to be fewer deer, he says, although he's not certain why this is.
"It may be cyclical," he suggests. "Or something we just don't understand."
It's true, of course, that some hunters stalked mountain lions purely for sport, but O'Brien does not agree with those who blame the California law that protects non-predatory lions on the increased numbers.
"The lion boom is all over the Western states," he says, including states that don't have protection laws.
Nonetheless, he disagrees with the ballot measure that resulted in our state law, particularly in the matter of relocation. "Killing a predatory lion is much more humane than cages and relocation," he says. "Taking a big tom lion — the killers are most often toms — out of his territory and into another male's territory is not a favor. Biologically, it's not a good idea."
As for the prevailing belief that the state's ban on poison bait has increased the coyote population, O'Brien thinks this is hard to believe. He doesn't see how poison could have stopped the spread. "If you kill a hundred, a hundred more are going to come. It's pretty hard to quell that population."
And, he adds, "people don't want to hear this, but dogs are as big a problem for ranchers as coyotes."
The protection laws, O'Brien says, "are not always well thought out. Voters think with their hearts and not with their heads. Some people talk about how sheep ranchers should &‘barn' their flocks to keep them from predators" — that is, herd them into a closed building at night.
"So then you've got lions and no sheep. Watch your kids!"
A visit with this big, garrulous guy is a look at a facet of Sonoma County many of its citizens neither know of nor understand.
Some may be surprised just to learn that Sonoma County has such a person, a position now known as the politically acceptable "wildlife specialist."
"For what you think it's worth," O'Brien says, "my title with the ag office was hunter-trapper. I was always fond of that. I will never forget the time Ag Commissioner John Westoby called me on the county truck radio to ask if I would like my title changed to wildlife specialist.