By Joseph Robertia
Having your dog caught in a hunting snare or trap just once is a traumatically memorable experience. Ken Green, of Cooper Landing, has had it happen multiple times, and always in popular recreation areas, not far from a road or trail. On one occasion it was in a conibear — a powerful, snap-type trap, rather than a less-destructive snare — that had long been abandoned.
He is not alone, particularly in an area like Cooper Landing, where tracts of the Chugach National Forest are open to trapping as well as dog-friendly recreational pursuits, like hiking, biking and skijoring.
Last spring he started an online petition through MoveOn.org to, “Demand Alaska legislative attention to the growing safety concerns of unregulated trapping and bear-baiting in residential areas and on multiple-use public lands.” The petition is to be delivered to the state Legislature and Gov. Sean Parnell, and has been signed by people across the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, the Lower 48 and farther abroad. The forum allows signers to post a comment. Some, like Natalia Aulenbacher, of Kenai, propose a specific regulatory change — such as outlawing traps within a quarter mile of a trail and requiring the traps’ owners to post their name and contact information on the trap. Others, like Renee Vincent, of Sequim, Wash., rail against trappers in general:
“This is pathetic! I am so sickened by this neanderthal (sic) thinking and actions that I am EMBARRASSED to be of the same species with these thugs! Evolution train pass them by? APPARENTLY SO! We Demand Alaska legislative attention to the growing safety concerns of unregulated trapping and bear-baiting in residential areas and on multiple use public lands.”
There’s even a voice of dissension, like Ben Sweeney, of Sterling, who states he “signed” the petition only to be able to comment, asking that not all law-abiding trappers who do try to minimize the possibility of catching an unintended species be lumped in with the few bad apples trapping close to homes, roads or trails. While it is “obviously unfortunate and sad when a pet does in fact get caught in a trap and is injured or killed because of it,” and his “heart has gone out to the owners,” he argues that pet owners should safeguard their pets’ safety:
“Take responsibility for your pets and have some sort of control over them. And know that this is public land we are speaking of here and it should be open to us all and free to use how we wish within the limits of the law.”
The petition seeks 1,000 signatures. As of Tuesday it had gotten 823. In addition to that effort, residents of Cooper Landing, Moose Pass and Seward formed the Coalition for Safe Public Trails in order to advocate for a revamp of state trapping laws. Green has been giving presentations on safety in trapping areas around the central peninsula as part of that mission.
“The tenor of my presentation was to create a way of avoiding the old tit-for-tat arguments that go nowhere, mainly by focusing on safety issues as a neutral point that is a concern to everyone involved, but also highlighting the fact that the present situation is not acceptable and conflicts can only get worse as population and demographics in rural Alaska change,” Green said.
State law advises trappers to check their sets “regularly” and advises them to stay away from areas where people may live or recreate, according to Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“Act responsibly as a trapper and conservationist by trapping in ways that minimize conflict between trapping and other users — e.g., avoid high recreational-use areas. Avoid situations where you might catch a dog or cat, such as near homes and trails frequently used by hikers, skijorers, dog mushers or other people,” Lewis said, reading from the state trapping regulations.
But to Green, “advising” is a far cry from “requiring,” and he would like to see regulation change, more closely mirroring those of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge where there are trap identification requirements, trap-checking requirements typically every four or seven days, and minimum distance buffers around roads, trails, residences and recreation areas.
The first step in advocating for change is to demonstrate the significance of the problem. That means recording how many incidents are occurring, Green said.
“Getting publicity about the issues and letting others who are and have been affected by improper trapping know that some of us are trying to make a difference is quite important,” he said.
“If there is someone at the (Kenai Peninsula Borough) who can set up a reporting database for trapping conflicts, maybe an incident report form to fill in, town and rural constituents would have an official place to file complaints and an official history could be established. A timeline history would be difficult to ignore. At the moment all there is are scattered reports in the media of so-and-so’s dogs being killed, etc.”
Green has contacted Fish and Game to complain about the problem traps his dogs have encountered, particularly along Snug Harbor Road in Cooper Landing. But the bottom line, according to Lewis, is the traps were set legally by state definition.
“People setting along Snug Harbor Road aren’t in violation of the law,” Lewis said. “There are no state setbacks in that area.”
His office can’t institute a setback, so suggestions for regulatory changes should be taken to the Board of Game, Lewis said.
“The public process is to approach the land managers of a specific area and the board to request changes, so that’s what this group needs to do if they want to see changes,” he said.
Green attended a Board of Game meeting last winter, but was too late to submit a proposal for that agenda. He also wanted to gain the support of a variety of local, official entities, since he views trapping near homes and roads a safety issue not just to pets, but to children playing in the area, as well.
“So the first step for me was bringing the issue up with the borough assembly, and I think a good number of the assembly members were — are — unaware of the trapping conflicts as being a serious problem. I am now in a waiting period to see what we can do next. Approaching (Fish and Game) is pointless without some legislative backing, and that isn’t going to happening without an outcry from the public,” Green said.
He approached the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly to ask for support.
“The KPB Assembly, I think, was a little mystified by my presenting the issue to them rather than, say, to Fish and Game. There were questions from Sue McClure and others about what I thought they could do. And I responded that perhaps borough governmental bodies need to primarily recognize and acknowledge that there is a multiuse issue and a safety issue. For us in Cooper Landing, that would mean some kind of official rapport with a KPB Borough rep so that a timeline record can be started and maintained,” Green said.
“As I explained it in my presentation, the issue of irresponsible trapping is perpetually passed around and no one is politically able or willing to get a handle on it. This presentation could be a starting point, getting the borough involved at the constituent level. It is the only way I have been able to figure out to begin structuring the issues. Other places, like Cordova, have been very active and have developed more detailed plans and ideas. They have taken the positive steps toward getting their issues onto a ballot,” he said.
Some of the trapping regulations Green would like to see instituted statewide would mirror those in place in the Kenai refuge — requiring trap identification and disallowing trapping within a quarter mile of roads and trails.
Lewis said trappers might be hesitant to support these kinds of regulations statewide because it could invite theft of gear or malicious behavior, such as people tampering with the traps and snares.
“It’s illegal to obstruct or hinder someone trapping legally,” Lewis said. In the case of trapping, this can mean even walking up to the trap, since trappers are careful to not leave scent of signs of their presence when setting out their capture devices. “The average Joe can’t just walk up and check a trap unless they are releasing a pet.”
Lewis said that he thinks it is a minority of unethical trappers who are causing the majority of the concerns, and as unethical trappers they might not adhere to more-stringent regulations even if they were enacted.
Green uses that logic on the opposite side — arguing that anti-trapping types would be just as likely to interfere with an unidentified trap as an identified one. And the larger good would be giving enforcement officers a person responsible if a trap is set illegally or left abandoned long after trapping season has ended.
Lewis said that the responsibility of pet safety is on both sides — ethical trappers have an onus to minimize potential conflicts, and so do pet owners by keeping pets on leashes or otherwise in control when in any area where traps could be set.
Even pets on leashes, such as long retractable ones, may have a range of nearly 30 feet, and Sandra Holsten, a Cooper Landing resident, coalition member and avid hunter, who also pointed out that some activities require well-trained dogs to be off leash.
“I have high-end purebred bird dogs, and until trappers began to trap in residential areas and along ski and recreational trails, I hunted spruce grouse with my dog. These are dogs that are bred for their ability to smell. A baited trap is a sure death or injury for them. Why is one activity allowed at the expense of most others? My ability to enjoy my favorite activity — bird hunting — with my dog no longer is possible near my home,” she said.
“I am actually contemplating moving to get where my dogs can hunt and train on public lands without being killed by a trap behind my house. I think I’m the kind of citizen that communities want and am sad that the agencies turn a blind eye to the needs of the majority of their users. We even had traps near our groomed ski trails. We have tried to market them as a place you can run your dog and ski. Our local businesses benefit from the customers this attracts in our very slow season,” she said. “In good conscience we no longer feel right about encouraging this use.”
Green said he understands the convenience of setting and checking traps for a hunter in setting their gear near trails and roads, but that it is an activity that should come second to safety.
“Safety issues must be the priority,” he said. “Setback zones are logical, since children, adults and domestic pets are all at risk to traps set close to multiuse areas, even when under proper control.”
For those concerned about pets becoming trapped or snared, Lewis said that Fish and Game, in conjunction with the Alaska Trappers Association, recently produced new materials providing instruction on how to release a pet from a trap or snare. Copies can be picked up at the Soldotna office or viewed online at www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/hunting/trapping/pdfs/trap_safety_for_pet_owners.pdf.
Green’s petition can be found at http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/petition-on-trapping.