Mountain man

Sean Shea is a scientist, a hermit, a hunter, a naturalist … or maybe he's just lucky

Sean Shea collects data on Lahontan cutthroat trout at Independence Creek.

Sean Shea collects data on Lahontan cutthroat trout at Independence Creek.

Photo By Laura Davis

When the alarm clock goes off in the morning, most of us wake up and prepare for the daily commute to our 9-to-5 office jobs, where having a window view and a swivel chair is the equivalent of winning the desk job lottery. Sean Shea, a fishery biologist for the United States Geological Survey, has a different daily routine.

He rises before dawn, around 4:30 a.m., pulls on some waterproof trousers, swings open the door to the trailer he calls his second home, and heads out to wade into the nearby creek, giant net in hand, in order to filter fish from a weir constructed in the spring. Not just any fish, though. It’s the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, to be exact. While the rest of us make small talk with coworkers at the break room coffee maker, Shea’s only point of contact is the cohabiting wildlife, which makes for much simpler conversation first thing in the morning, before the caffeine’s connected brain to tongue.

That’s just the beginning of his day, and that’s only job number one. Once Shea gets snowed out of his fish work, he spends the rest of the year tracking mountain lions, acting as a master guide to big game hunters, and running a taxidermy business. And somewhere among it all, he finds time for an archery competition or two—bow and arrow being his hunting instrument of choice. He hasn’t picked up a rifle in 25 years; there’s no challenge in it for him anymore, and Shea likes a challenge. He’s an extreme naturalist—to say the least.

Gone fishin'

Shea got started with the USGS after graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in resource management 22 years ago, a degree he says today is equivalent to a biology degree. After getting hired on with Western Fisheries Research Center’s Reno branch office, he spent some time with the fish out at Pyramid Lake and with some fish species down in Southern Nevada. Then, in the spring of 1997, he got assigned the full-time task of studying fish in Independence Lake—a mountain body of water located 12 miles north of Truckee, Calif., in the Northern Sierra. In the beginning, the project was merely to observe the lake’s native Lahontan cutthroat trout—because not much was known about the aquatic inhabitants aside from some earlier broad studies dating back to the ’70s.

Shea and a USGS coworker were the first to be put on the project—their research eventually pointed to the reason behind the heavy decline of the Lahontan’s population in the Truckee River system. According to the USGS website, the Lahontan’s population has been near extinction for the last 25 years, having lost 95 percent of their original population. With the Independence and Summit Lake’s strains being the only known self-sustaining Lahontan cutthroats remaining (the strand in Pyramid Lake are hatchery born), the project took on a new, pointed agenda: to preserve and raise the Lahontan’s numbers at Independence, which has the smallest population of the two lakes.

Shea found himself the main man on the scene—perhaps he didn’t quite know at the time that he was committing himself to a decade-plus virtual relocation project, which he says ideally still has a decade more to go to get the Lahontan numbers where they want them.

“When we first started, it was primarily to see what was going on in the lake—what the population of all the native species like the Lahontan were and just overall what was in there,” Shea says.

But one thing led to another, and as the project began to show successful results with not only Lahontan cutthroat trout increasing in number, but also less scaly species such as bald eagles and osprey, the need to continue work at the lake became apparent. With Shea being committed to the cause, and as a natural outdoors man from an early age, thanks to his mother and grandpa turning him on to fishing as a boy, he was the one willing to stick around to see this thing through.

“There are certain parts of my job where it’s a team effort, but most the time, I’m by myself, and I can handle that,” Shea explains of his somewhat isolated profession. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and you find that with new generations, their phone is their whole life. And most people want their time off to go back to the city, whereas if there’s stuff to do, I’d rather stay up there and get it done.”

And it’s true, not everyone has Shea’s survivalist knack, or the endurance to withstand the social disconnection. Shea admits that in the busy season when the fish are spawning, and he has to be on the weir from sunup to sundown—he’ll be up at the lake for five weeks straight. Living in the trailer that he describes as “having everything you really need—a stove, a fridge and a freezer” and consuming primarily the game he’s hunted back in Nevada (California has strict hunting laws), and any dry goods he’s stockpiled. Interactions with the occasional curious hiker happen about three times a week, when they stumble upon the project. And as for cell phone reception, well, it varies day-to-day. At times he has to trek three miles away to find it, depending on the way the wind blows. But the isolation doesn’t bother Shea much, he’s used to hearing about world events in hindsight.

“Most the time I’m in another world, it seems,” Shea admits. “I get back down [to Reno] and something is always going on that I didn’t know about, but it generally doesn’t bother me. As long a bomb doesn’t go off, I guess I’m good.”

Plus, all that searching for a signal just gives him a good excuse to hike, one of Shea’s favorite pastimes.

“I’ve walked thousands of miles [during my time up here],” Shea says. “I’ve hiked up most the peaks in the area, explored all the lakes over the hills. It’s a beautiful countryside.”

The scenery surely beats the view from that quick lunch break walk to the corner Starbucks for the rest of us—not that parking lots aren’t awe inspiring in their own right. The only one with room to complain would be, perhaps, Shea’s wife, who works as a graphic designer down in civilization five days a week. But according to Shea, she knew about his job(s) well ahead of time—and they’ve found ways to make it work.

“I’m very lucky, she’s good about it,” Shea admits. “She’s busy with her work too, and we just find time to spend time together when we can.”

Vicky Vaughn Shea, owner of Ponderosa Pine Design, a book design company, says their lifestyle may be unconventional but it works.

“We both lead separate lives, and the time apart gives us our own space, but we’re really good when we are together,” she says. “I don’t think a lot of people could do a relationship like ours, but it works for us. … Sean was the first boy I kissed, in seventh grade. Then we went to our 20-year high school reunion and [reconnected]. We were married two months later.”

“Sean’s definitely a mountain man—he’s happy and loves to do what he does.”

That probably explains why he’s so good at it.

The success of the project’s Lahontan rehabilitation can be greatly attributed to the second phase of the USGS’s Independence project in which Shea also participates—the removal of nonnative fish that have been calling the lake home, non-natives being species such as the Eastern brook trout and the Kokanee salmon that were unnaturally introduced to the lake for fishing purposes.

“The end of September, since 2005, we spend days straight removing brook trout from the upper Independence creek by straining them,” Shea explains. “Since removing them we’ve seen a drastic increase in the survival of the cutthroat trout … without the brook trout around to prey on them.”

Another species which tends to prey on the Lahontans that are a touch more intimidating? Bears. A species Shea may not be trying to strain, but he’s certainly had his share of close encounters with. And to think most people’s daily struggles are simply hand-to-hand combat with the jammed desk stapler.

The bears and the lions

Sean Shea likes to hang out with mountain lions when the fish aren’t biting.

Photo By

“There are a lot of bears up there,” Shea says.

“A couple of years ago, I was cutting through a side hill with all these thick trees,” Shea recalls. “As I came stepping through them, two bears jumped out—a big boar and a female. He was trying to breed her, and I got right in between them, unintentionally. I was, um, surprised. And he was huge—probably weighed 450 to 500 pounds. He was just a monster, a big cinnamon chocolate bear. I froze, but he was more interested in trying to figure out where she went than me, so he took off into these willows. Then I wasn’t really sure where they were, and that was probably the scariest part.”

Yup, just another day on the job, and Shea’s occupational hazards don’t end there. In the winter, once snowed out of the mountains, the Independence Lake project is put on forced hiatus and Shea finds other means of keeping himself busy while still earning a paycheck—he tracks mountain lions. What initially started as a hobby and a good way to give his hounds some exercise turned into a job when Alyson Andreasen, doctoral candidate at UNR, and ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, contacted him. Andreasen’s proposal was another assignment Shea soon found himself getting an extension on, once the findings from the four years’ worth of research turned out to be significant as well.

“The project is looking at various aspects of mountain lion ecology and behavior in Nevada,” Shea explains. “Everything from DNA work, to looking at lion movement across Nevada, to GPS collaring to examine lions’ relationship with their prey.”

While Andreasen tackles the informational side of it, Shea gets delegated the hands-on.

“He’d be out at 3 a.m., in the winter, in a snow storm, looking for lion tracks,” Andreasen says. “And he hunts all day long, maybe be off the mountain by dark the next evening. Just spending an incredible amount of time and effort on the project. Much more than anyone could appreciate.”

But that’s what he’s used to, right? With the fish, Shea’s only job hazard is getting whipped with a tail or perhaps splattered with fish eggs (yes, they do have a tendency to do that), the cats tend to be a little more on the feisty side.

“I’ve been hit before,” Shea admits. “Luckily I had a jacket on when it slapped me. They’re not as powerful as a bear, but it’s enough to throw you.” That was just a temporary sting for Shea. His scariest encounter with a mountain lion?

“Probably the closest call I had was with this huge Tom,” Shea recalls. “He was in a tree, and as I came walking up to him, he made eye contact with me about 100 yards out and just stared at me through the trees. As I got closer I could tell something was noticeably up with him. I got probably 20 yards away when he came straight down a limb at me, right over the top of my head and I remember ducking out of the way. The only reason he kept going past is because one of the dogs came.”

One similarity of the two jobs is the early hours. As with the fish, Shea begins his tracking when it’s still dark out. Mountain lions are nocturnal hunters. He loads up his truck with his four hound dogs, which he personally trained to track, and hits the back roads. He drives up and down until he spots some tracks in the snow, making winter the best time of year for the job. But there’s no rhythm or reason to a day’s successful odds.

“You don’t find one every time you go out. It just varies. I’ve gone a couple weeks without seeing tracks,” Shea admits. “But then you go one day and catch two or three cats.”

While the fish work is environmentally important, socially it doesn’t draw as much interest when it comes up in conversation as mountain lion tracking. Shea does assert that fish are wildly under-appreciated—“It’s the idea that if it’s not as big as me, or if it doesn’t have hair or feathers, it’s not as important as me. There’s a little hierarchy,” he says. The most interest he gets tends to involve people wanting to give mountain lion tracking a try themselves—to which Shea just smiles, it’s not as easy as hopping in a car and loading up the family dog.

“I just say good luck,” Shea says. “It’s a lot harder than people think. People think that there are lions around every bush. But they’re not, they’re a solitary, nocturnal predator.”

It’s a highly efficient predator that knows who, what, when and where to hide. And along with those hand-trained hounds, Shea also has some predatory hunting skills of his own on his side, leading to his third job, master hunting guide.

If the boot fits

During the hunting season, Shea takes on the title of certified master guide. Hunters from across the country pull big game tags—everything from deer, antelope and elk to bears and mountain lions—then contact him to be guided through the Nevada desert in search of adventure. Shea’s a good point of contact—he’s got 10 years of work under his belt, plus all the equipment and expertise you could ask for. He supplies everything for the average five-day trip aside from his client’s personal gear. It’s a one-on-one camping experience generally, with Shea a silent partner who doesn’t pressure his clients one way or the other. For many, he says, it’s not so much about the kill as it is the sport.

“My success rate’s pretty high—but I don’t tell people to shoot,” Shea says. “If we see something they want, we go after it. If they don’t want to shoot it that’s still fun, that’s why they call it hunting, not killing. It’s mostly just the enjoyment of getting out there.”

Shea himself prefers the bow and arrow of archery, a sport he not only competes in throughout the year, but also the only way he’ll hunt. He likes the more level playing field it allows, being able to get up close and personal in order to “beat them at their own game,” as he puts it. And that playing field is expansive—he’s hunted everywhere from Africa to the Arctic Circle, to Canada and Alaska. But his favorite spot is still the unassuming Nevada desert, and his favorite target is the fleet-footed mule deer. Once again, it’s the challenge.

“I love hunting mule deer in the desert. I think it’s probably the hardest game there is because they’re smart and very tricky,” Shea explains.

As for exotic animals, Shea does his share of work with them, but not in the sense you’d expect. He works year round as a taxidermist out of his home’s detached garage. With more than 20 years of experience in this art, Shea’s got his personal home collection going as well as his client work. Over the years his home has morphed into quite the taxidermy art gallery, comprised of all his own pieces, of course.

“You walk into my house and it’s full to the ceiling,” Shea describes. “I’ve got mountain lions, mountain goats, sheep, a bunch of deer, and bear skins—that’s the stuff I do for myself. There are probably 25 total throughout my house.”

His work can be seen by the public across the United States, as far as a few East Coast museums where pieces like an Indonesian Javan Rusa deer are on display. Closer to home, you’ve likely already walked right by one. The piece in the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, the scene of the mountain lion stalking a mule deer—that’s Sheas’ handy work, habitat and all, which took him approximately a year off and on to make.

Shea also gets some off-the wall jobs. Starting as small as a pet cat’s foot being constructed into a necklace, to a severed human leg being carved into a walking stick. Yes, you read that right. A human leg cane.

“He was on a motorcycle on the way to Virginia City, when the bike slid out into a guard rail and severed his leg a couple inches below the knee,” Shea says of the customer. Naturally, he decided to commemorate his lost limb into a functional form.

Shea’s occupations range from adventurous, to educational, to dangerous, to occasionally disturbing (once again, human leg cane). But how does Shea see his employment world, which is far beyond cubicle walls?

“I think I’ve got a pretty normal life. I don’t see anything different about it,” Shea says with a shrug, scratching at his bristly beard. “But I guess I get reminded that I’m pretty lucky when people [come back to the Independence Lake site] and go, ’Man, you got the best job!’ And I’ll look around and go, ’Yeah, I got a pretty damn good job. … I’ve got all windows.”