Shane Cornwall strains to hear the faint beeps through the hissing static of his radio receiver. In one hand Cornwall holds an antenna. In the other hand he cradles an electronic receiver that is picking up faint pulses from a transmitter at an animal snare five miles away. The signal tells him a cougar foot snare has been sprung, and that it might have caught the cougar that attacked a flock of sheep grazing in Utah's west desert. The cat killed at least one ewe and the flock's owner worries it will return for more.
Sheep rancher Steve Fitzgerald lost 150 sheep to predators like cougars and coyotes last year. Some years the loss is twice that amount, with the monetary damage estimated at $10,000.
Cornwall is a trapper with the Utah Department of Agriculture's Animal Damage Control (ADC) program. He uses 20th century technology to turn a centuries old job into one that's more humane for both predator and prey.
Cornwall's new equipment allows him to electronically monitor eight foot-snares from a distance of up to 30 miles. The device tells him in an instant whether a snare has been sprung, allowing Cornwall to immediately drive to the site to investigate. If Cornwall finds an animal that hasn't been targeted for taking, he releases it. The electronic monitor saves Cornwall considerable time, and makes his job a little safer. Some of the snares are placed in remote areas with few roads or places to call for help.
The ride to the cougar snare is quick, up a rocky four-wheel-drive road to a ravine not far from where a dead sheep was recently discovered. With rifle in hand, Cornwall moves toward the snare.
"It's a false alarm." Cornwall says. A recent rain had weighted down some sage brush branches, which falsely triggered a device on the transmitter indicating that the snare had been sprung.
Cornwall dismantles the snare after testing it. It had been in place and regularly checked for nearly two weeks. According to ADC policy, traps can only be set for a certain length of time following a confirmed kill. This cougar had moved on, or was more patient than the trappers.
Utah's ADC program was created in 1931 to protect livestock, poultry and crop-raising industries from damaging predatory animals. Turkey growers, as well as cattle and sheep ranchers, are charged a fee to help pay for the program. The state of Utah matches the funds generated by the ranchers' fees. The federal government also contributes to the program.
"It doesn't take long for a rancher to go out of business if you lose too many sheep to coyotes," Fitzgerald says. "If it weren't for trappers like Shane, we wouldn't be able to graze here."
Fitzgerald refers to the Death Canyon BLM grazing allotment in Juab county. It's the same land where the Fitzgeralds have grazed cattle and sheep for four generations.
Inside Fitzgerald's portable camp, which is little more than a bed and gas cook range on wheels, his son Cory stokes the fire in the wood stove. In the warmth of the camp, and speaking between sips of cowboy coffee, Fitzgerald talks about the challenges of ranching.
"One year a bear came through the herd and killed 30 sheep in one night. It didn't eat the sheep, it just killed to kill." He says the trappers and the ADC program help keep him in business. He doesn't mind paying for the service, because he knows the trappers are taking animals that would be killing his sheep.
"This is all I know. My father ran sheep, his father ran sheep, and if my boy can still make a profit at it when I quit, Cory will run sheep too."
In addition to the eight electronic devices, Cornwall checks 96 other traps primarily set for coyotes. Cornwall says some days he may catch several coyotes.
Since the ADC program began many years ago, trappers have taken predators in all 29 Utah counties. It has saved livestock and turkey owners millions of dollars. That revenue allows producers to reinvest in their businesses and helps make Utah livestock and wildlife interests powerful economic forces in the state.
The program also helps protect dairy farms and other agricultural interests from nuisance animals such as raccoons, skunks and certain blackbirds.
Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) will continue its policy of banning the private use of the predator control device known as the M-44, which uses the chemical compound sodium cyanide. The decision to continue the ban came during the October 10, 1997 Wildlife Damage Prevention Board meeting.
The decision was based on wildlife protection interests and on financial concerns. Speaking for the board, Utah Commissioner of Agriculture and Food, Cary G. Peterson said the Wildlife Damage Prevention Program "is not into the indiscriminate killing of animals, and it hopes to keep it that way." Peterson was referring to the possibility that untrained and unsupervised users of the devices could unintentionally kill domestic animals and wildlife while trying to target offending predators. The board also heard information from UDAF that costs to supervise a single private user of the M-44 device for one year would run more than $20,000. UDAF, through its Plant Industry Division, is responsible for regulating the use of all pesticides in the state.
The following is information by which the Wildlife Damage Prevention Board based its action.
The M-44 is one of several methods used to kill coyotes attacking livestock. The mechanical ejection device contains lethal amounts of sodium cyanide. USDA-APHIS currently registers the product in Utah for their own use in the Animal Damage Control (ADC) Program. ADC personnel are the only ones licensed to use the product in the state. There are currently 33 ADC people licensed in category 9 (Regulatory) in the state.
The Wildlife Damage Prevention Board at its February 6, 1997 meeting requested the department to submit a budget to answer the question of how much it would cost to directly supervise an applicator in the use of the M-44 devices. The following information is presented as a what-if situation. What if M-44 was registered by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, and private pesticide applicators were certified in the Regulatory Category (category number 9) to use the product?
Monitoring activity is a cooperative state/federal program and costs for this activity are shared and not counted as part of the direct supervision expenses. Direct supervision expenses are listed below for the M-44 program for one applicator for one year:
The department recommends no change from the current programmed use of the M-44 in the control of certain predators.
The current program requires that all M-44 users become certified pesticide applicators, including certification in the Regulatory Category. The Regulatory Category certification...is limited to state and federal, employees or persons under their direct supervision... R68-7-6.
Caution and reason in the safe use of this toxic but effective tool dictate restricted use and justify very tight control and direct supervision of each applicator using the M-44.
Budget restrictions are indeed a limiting factor in implementing a program of direct supervision of applicators. The mechanism is in place to meet the needs of the industry through the controlled safe use of the M-44.
For predator information, please specify whether your request is for billing information, exemptions, questions, outreach or education.
United States Department of Agriculture
PO Box 26976
Salt Lake City UT 84126-0976