It all happened so fast that there was nothing Ali Hirt could do to save her dog Stoic earlier this month when he was fatally caught in an illegal beaver trap in Kane Creek.
But the Grand County High School student is determined to help prevent similar tragedies from occurring by raising awareness about the potential threats of wildlife traps in popular recreation areas near dog-loving Moab.
“I’d just like Moab to have to think about it – that there is this danger out there – and I would like trappers to consider the risk they’re putting everyone at when they’re setting these traps,” she said.
Hirt, whose grandfather is a trapper, sees no reason why trappers should be placing the devices so close to the city limits.
“I feel like there should be something done about restrictions as to where (someone) can set a trap, especially near such populated areas,” she said.
Hirt adopted her 2-year-old Australian shepherd/pit bull mix and his brother Neko from La Sal when they were old enough to be taken away from their mother. She remembers Stoic in particular as a super-happy, “really loyal” and goofy canine companion.
“He was very special to me,” she said. “He was my best friend.”
Since she first took them in, Hirt and her dogs had gone just about everywhere around Moab, but she singled out the Kane Springs area as her favorite place to hike.
With two of her friends in tow, they set off for the area on Saturday, Feb. 10, parking her van near the mouth of Hunter Canyon.
They had been hiking for perhaps less than a minute when Stoic – who loved the water – went straight toward Kane Creek. Almost immediately, he began to struggle; Hirt’s first thought was that he was somehow entangled in a coat hanger.
When it became clear that he was stuck in a trap, she and a friend jumped in after him and tried to pull it off, but it was too late: Within a minute, Stoic was dead.
Hirt and her friends were in shock; she couldn’t imagine that they would encounter a trap in a place that she visits so often.
“I never thought I’d ever have to worry about something like this, especially in Moab,” Hirt said. “It’s something you shouldn’t have to worry about.”
A couple heard them screaming, and a man carried Stoic back to her vehicle.
With no cell phone service in the canyon, Hirt and her friends had to drive all the way to Matheson Wetlands before she was able to report the incident; she eventually took a Utah Department of Natural Resources officer back to the scene.
State wildlife officials subsequently set up surveillance cameras in the area and identified the trapper; they also found three additional traps nearby, according to Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) Lt. Ben Wolford.
The trapper, who has not been publicly identified, has a license to trap fur-bearing animals. But the trap that killed Stoic was not legally registered, according to Wolford.
“This particular trap did not have a register number on it, and that’s where the violations came in,” he said.
As of Tuesday, Feb. 20, Wolford could only say that the DWR is pursuing a charge of “failure to tag.”
“But we’re still looking at other things,” he said.
Wolford said the suspect will likely be charged with class B misdemeanor offenses – although no charges had been filed in Grand County Justice Court as of Wednesday, Feb. 21.
“I don’t think there are formal charges yet, but there could be (this week),” he said.
No laws against trapping in season
While there are no state laws against beaver trapping in most areas during the fur-bearer season, the division strongly recommends that trappers avoid setting traps near trails that hikers and dog walkers use frequently.
“It’s not illegal, but we do encourage trappers to stay away from areas that are frequented by trail users and others who are out to enjoy natural areas,” Wolford said.
The current trapping season for beavers in Utah began on Sept. 23, 2017, and it’s scheduled to end on April 4.
Usually, Wolford said, trappers try to stay away from more populated areas because beavers are less common there. But during the season, hikers, dog walkers and others may encounter traps around ledges, rocks and some waterways, he said.
“It is trapping season, so there is a higher risk of them running into traps out there,” Wolford said. “We want people to be aware that this is a possibility.”
Although it’s legal today, beaver trapping is somewhat anachronistic in the 21st Century.
“It’s not like it was in the olden times when it was sustenance for food and trading and stuff like that,” Wolford said.
Tens of millions of beaver once occupied streams and other riparian areas across the West, but trappers decimated their numbers in the 19th Century. The species’ population across North America has since rebounded to an estimated 10 to 15 million individuals.
Today, not many people in Utah trap beaver, unless particular “nuisance” animals are damaging canals or other agricultural infrastructure. In this instance, Wolford said, there were no reports of nuisance animals along Kane Creek or Hunter Canyon.
“Down in that area, there wasn’t any issue like that,” he said.
Wolford said the suspect used a “kill trap” that was designed to suffocate animals.
“They’re a very powerful trap,” Wolford said. “You usually need a special tool to open them up.”
While there are other ways to open such traps, Wolford said it’s much harder for someone who is not familiar with them to remove the devices. The likelihood that anyone could rescue an animal in time to save his or her life is remote, he said.
Hirt said the springs on the trap were so strong that the device had to be sawed off Stoic’s neck, and it disturbs her to imagine what could have happened under another scenario.
“It could have been a kid; it could have been one of my friends, and there would have been nothing that we could have done (to help),” she said.
Leashes not required at most BLM sites
U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Public Affairs Specialist Lisa Bryant said her agency requires visitors with pets to leash their animals at established campgrounds and designated recreation sites. But leashes are optional in other areas that the agency administers, she said.
In places where leashes are required, Bryant said, the BLM does post signs at trailheads and campgrounds. But Bryant said it would be impractical to install signs at other locations, so the BLM works instead to raise public awareness about the potential threat of wildlife traps, and encourages people to leash their dogs.
“We usually approach it more through a general education campaign,” she said.
Unfortunately, she said, BLM officials have no way of knowing where wildlife traps are, either.
“So we don’t have any ways to manage that,” Bryant said.
But the agency is always open to suggestions about ways it could reduce the odds that something similar will happen again, she said, extending the agency’s condolences to Hirt and her family.
“It’s horribly, horribly unfortunate, and our hearts do go out to the pet owners,” she said. “For many people, pets are family members.”