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.