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One Man's Quest To Photograph All Of Colorado's Mammals

James Beissel
used with permission
A gray fox, its image captured by photographer James Beissel using a nighttime remote camera trap.

Colorado has 130 different species of mammals, and one man is trying to photograph them all.

Actually, James Beissel, a Boulder-based photographer, is starting with about 70 mammals – the ones that are chipmunk-sized and larger.

"Those other species that didn't make the list, those are the small rodents and the bats. Those are a very different approach to photographing them, so maybe that will be my phase two," Beissel said.

Credit James Beissel / used with permission
used with permission
Photographer James Beissel said one of the most exciting moments during his project was documenting the return of the black-footed ferret, an endangered species, to Northern Colorado.

Beissel, who also works in IT consulting, started his project in 2012. He hopes to finish in about three years, and eventually produce a book and exhibits helping Coloradans learn more about the mammals in their state. Some of his favorite experiences so far, he said, included finding mammals like river otters in unexpected places like Boulder Canyon, and documenting the return of an endangered species, the black-footed ferret, to Northern Colorado.

Beissel hosts his photography project on his website, where he posts informative blogs about his adventures trying to capture wiley animals on camera. We interviewed Bessel to learn more about the project:

Q: Where did you get the idea to photograph all of the state's mammals?

"So I was photographing mink at the time, and I was really excited to see a mink because it is a species you don't see very often. It got me thinking, what else could I find that was here in Colorado?"

Q: How do you find the animals?

"I try to read as much as I can. I try to learn as much about the animal as I can -- what its habits are, where it's likely to be found. I'll often create maps and use the maps to try and predict where the animal might be.

Sometimes it's a really calculated process. Sometimes I just get a good tip. Sometimes it's just luck. I love to get tips from people that are knowledgeable or that have studied the animal."

Credit James Beissel / used with permission
used with permission
It took photographer James Beissel a year of tracking to land a photograph of this Colorado badger.

Q: What have been the most difficult animals to photograph?

"[One] of the toughest ones for me in the last leg of my project has been badger. I spent most of my time for about a year trying to find a badger. They are really easy to see where they have been because they dig up prairie dogs and they leave big holes in the ground, but it's a lot harder to find out where they are now or to catch them above ground.

Finally I got to the point where I blocked off two months of my schedule to look for badgers full time. On the first day of that two-month block I finally photographed a badger."

Q: Where'd you find a badger?

"Pawnee National Grasslands, just east of Fort Collins.

Gray fox has been another one that has been tough for me. Here on the Front Range I've found that they are quite difficult and some of the least recorded species that I have encountered. They're quite nocturnal, compared to a red fox."

Q: How do you photograph animals that are only active at night?

"To photograph the nocturnal animals I needed to work with a little bit of different tools, because the two challenges are focusing in the dark and not having terrible red eye from these nocturnal animals highly sensitive eyes bouncing back into the camera.

I'll use a remote camera, essentially, and I'll set it up in a sight where I'm hoping the animal is going to pass through. So I'll compose the photo, pre-focus the lens and set the flashes up so that they are not going to be bouncing back into the camera, and then use a motion sensor, so that when the animal is in the right spot, when it's in focus, that will trigger the camera to take a photo."

Credit James Beissel / used with permission
used with permission
The ringtail, which looks a little like a lemur but is related to raccoons, is a Colorado mammal most people don't get to see, since it is nocturnal.

Q: Are there any unusual animals you have photographed?

"One of my favorites is a ringtail. It's a member of the raccoon family, but it looks kind of like a lemur. It's pretty exotic looking, when people see it they think of Madagascar or something. It's got a long, black-and-white striped tail, it's a really good climber, maybe the size of a small housecat, loves to climb in rocky areas.

It's very nocturnal so very few people get a chance to see them. But we have them in Boulder County and along the Front Range."

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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