The pumas were only about 100 yards away. Taylor Phillips watched, transfixed, as the mother and her cubs played.
Phillips, owner and guide at Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, which leads tours in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, had studied and read about mountain lions in school and tracked them in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but he’d seen only a few and from a distance.
Then, in December, in Patagonia in Chile, Phillips witnessed for the first time the behavior he’d heard and read about for years. And now he wants to share that experience with wildlife enthusiasts.
Next March, EcoTour Adventures will offer its first trip outside the Yellowstone region with a 10-day tour in Patagonia that includes a chance to view the wild cats with puma biologist Mark Elbroch. The trip also includes condor viewing and a boat trip through the Strait of Magellan for humpback whale watching.
Phillips created the trip after Elbroch, who used to live in Jackson, suggested the destination. The region is known for sheep ranching, and the business threatened the puma’s future in the area as it claimed the animals’ habitat.
But recently, local ranches stopped using the land for sheep. They keep it wild and then lure tourists to see animals in their natural habitat, Philips said.
The pumas on the ranches are wild: They are not fed, fenced or cared for beyond the protection that moving across private property affords, Phillips said. But they are easily spotted on the ranches, and people can watch them interact with each other and even hunt, for hours each day.
Elbroch, along with several local guides and several guides from Jackson, will provide viewers in-depth information about animal behavior they witness on the trip.
“It’s a great way to bring awareness about mountain lions and their plight in the area, and help contribute to their success,” Phillips said of the tour.
It fits with the mission of EcoTour Adventures. Phillips, who has a degree in environmental studies, started the business in 2008. He built his business model on ecotourism principles, such as using local services and goods, including food for customer lunches, and donating 2.5% of his sales to nonprofits that protect the parks where he leads tours.
Phillips and his team lead a variety of one-day and multiday trips in Grand Teton and Yellowstone, and now Patagonia.
The Patagonia trip will run March 13 to 23 and costs $12,150 a person. Phillips hopes to eventually offer several trips to the region each year and expand to other locations across the globe, although he does not yet have a plan for another international destination. He just knows that wherever he leads trips, he wants the experience to be unique, educational, and promote conversation, as he hopes will be the case with Patagonia.
“The wildlife down there is just awesome, and seeing it with Dr. Elbroch in such an incredible setting is something very special,” he said.