By Joseph Robertia
As Cooper Landing musher Robert Bear headed up to a major mid-distance sled dog race in the Interior last weekend, he did so without two of his best dogs. Back at home were his two leads, sitting out this race, and others to come, due to injuries sustained after being caught in the bone-crushing clamp of a leg-hold trap early last month.
“One of the dogs lost its front right leg and the other part of its front paw,” Bear said.
This is the second time in two years he’s had a dog caught in a trap, although he was able to quickly release the dog the last time, he said. This time, however, was not so fortunate.
He was hooking up for a training run off of Snug Harbor Road. The dogs were amped to go, Bear explained, and as he was attaching dogs to the lines as quickly as he could, it wasn’t quick enough for one of the dogs just behind the leaders. It chewed through the mainline and set the two leaders free.
“They took off sprinting,” he said. “I immediately went out looking for them, and nothing. I continued looking for them for 48 hours before I finally heard one of them howl as I was going by.”
Bear followed the sound a short distance through the forest and found the two dogs, cold, dehydrated and hungry, but alive. They were clamped in side-by-side traps.
“This was less than 50 feet from the road and between the senior center and the Girl Scout camp. Baited with meat and feathers, so I think any loose dog could have been caught in them,” he said.
Equally concerning to Bear is that, while trapping season for many species opened Nov. 10, lynx season wasn’t set to begin until Jan. 1. Bear’s dogs were caught Dec 13. From the trappers he’s described the setup to, it seemed the traps was either legally targeting coyote or illegally targeting lynx.
Despite the accident, Bear said that he’s not against trappers or responsible trapping.
“I use ruffs and other fur for mushing, so I’m not anti-trapping,” he said, “but I do want to create an awareness of the dangers within our community. It’s not safe right now. We can’t hardly recreate on trails they call multiuse, because once those traps are set, they kind of become single-use in the mind of most dog owners.”
Ken and Kate Green, of Cooper Landing, have had their Labradors caught on multiple occasions, as well.
“Since trapping in this area is a significant problem for hikers, skiers and dog walkers, it would be very nice to get the word out. We have had our dogs caught in foothold traps and snares over the past three years. All traps were within 25 to 50 feet of the lake or roads and, to the best of our knowledge, unmarked,” Kate said.
Her husband, Ken, remembers each of the events clearly, since he was with their dogs. The first time was while recreating with his three Labradors — two of the younger ones off-leash — at a popular picnic site referred to by the locals as Five-Mile Beach or Waikiki.
“About 20 feet from Snug Harbor Road — up the embankment, on the beach just at tree line — the loose puppy got caught in a snap trap — jaws, but without teeth. Other than the howling and whining, she was unhurt. I released her easily enough. The trap was rusted, the bait seemed to have long deteriorated, and the only marking was a small piece of surveyor’s tape, which was faded. The trap appeared to have been there for some time,” he said.
Green wasn’t sure if the trap was deliberately deserted or just forgotten about by whoever set it, but either way he said it shouldn’t have been left behind since it could only have made the intended species unduly suffer since no one ever came to check it, but also because it could have caught a nontarget animal or even a small child recreating in the area.
The second time one of Green’s dogs was caught, he said it was again at a common recreation site for Copper Landing residents. This time it was along the shore of Kenai Lake.
“I was walking the same three dogs the next early spring, this time along the Quartz Creek side. The road ends at a small turnaround and a path leads to the beach which is wide and walkable at that time of year,” he said. “I noticed a DVD disc hanging on a branch just off the beach, and figured that some kids were playing around. When I came across another in another tree, I realized what they were.”
But by the time Green deduced why the DVDs were there, it was too late.
“My eldest dog was sitting quietly whining under some bushes right at the tree line edge of the beach. She was snared with a wire tight around the neck and quite frightened. Perhaps survival instinct told her not to struggle or panic. Had she, she would have died there. As it was I had great difficulty loosening the self-tightening steel wire loop. I eventually managed to wiggle the catch loose and widen the loop,” he said.
The third time one of Green’s dogs was caught it a trap, it was again back off of Snug Harbor Road. This time not far from the clean-fill clearing and the Chugach power substation.
“I was walking in the snow along the power line clear-cut, one on a leash and two running loose. I recognized immediately what the howling and whimpering meant and was annoyed at myself for forgetting about traps,” he said.
This was a much larger snap trap than those he encountered previously, and he said he had a lot of trouble getting the dog’s front paw released.
“It was an expensive, shiny new trap, marked with another DVD. I managed to get all three dogs back to the truck without further incident,” he said. “This trap was at least set away from the main road, but was not far from the side road to the power substation, and only 10 to 20 feet into the woods from the power line clearing.”
Like Bear, Green said that he is not anti-trapping, but that he does believe there needs to be changes to the current regulations. Other than on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Chugach State Park and a handful of other locations that require trappers to identify their hardware, the vast majority of the state does not require traps to be marked. This makes it difficult to penalize, or even track down, a trapper setting hardware illegally.
“Trappers are easily able to disregard regulations since there are no ID tagging regulations to tie the traps to them,” Green said. “And they seem to take advantage of it.”
A trap identification requirement combined with minimum distance buffers around roads, trails, residences and recreation areas would greatly improve safety for pets, Green and Bear said, and they have both contacted state Sen. Cathy Giessel in an effort to enact legislative changes.
Wildlife authorities were also made aware of the situation. Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that incidents of pets being caught in traps are lose-lose for everyone.
“There are two sides to every story and if someone is trapping legally in a community, it is the responsibility of dog owners to keep their pets on leashes. But, trappers need to understand that trapping along the edge of roads in residential areas builds resentment for trapping with the general public. We encourage trappers to trap away from publicly used trails and be responsible for their traps, and it’s always sad when this doesn’t happen,” he said.
As word of Bear’s and Green’s incidents have spread, many Cooper Landing residents have begun sharing similar sentiments that something should be done about trapping in the area.
“One thing that probably won’t come up that I have witnessed is people who liked to come from other areas and ski our trails are reluctant to come because we even have trapping on groomed ski trails. Our community had hoped by welcoming dogs on ski trails we would encourage customers for local businesses who struggle in the winter to stay open,” said Sandra Holsten, of Cooper Landing.
“As for me,” she added, “we like to hunt spruce grouse and hike with our trained hunting Labs. With their natural ability to sniff out scents, no place is safe. If I move away from Cooper Landing, the biggest reason will be because of state and federal agencies’ refusal to recognize we are not a Bush community. A trapper driving from Anchorage, Moose Pass and Soldotna to trap is ridiculous. They leave their traps unchecked for weeks. They put them next to private residences and immediately adjacent to major recreational trails.”
Holsten said that she believes trapping is a legitimate activity, but not where it overrides the activities of larger user groups.
“We have many local trappers who are very responsible,” she said, “but those that aren’t have created an environment where I am afraid to let my dog out on my property to poop unless I have him on a leash.”