OPINION: Alaska has changed. It’s time for trapping regulations to change too.

Michael Chase Dickerson walking with Hope the golden retriever in Chugach State Park. (Paxson Woelber photo)

Every winter, dogs in Alaska are maimed and killed by snares and powerful “quick-kill” Conibear crushing traps placed, virtually without restriction, in public multi-use areas. Alaska’s exceptionally permissive trapping regulations allow trappers to place these traps directly on public multi-use trails, next to roads, at public parking lots and trailheads, next to public cabins, on public beaches and in other heavily trafficked, designated multi-use areas.

The State of Alaska has even maintained that trappers can legally set traps on developed private land without the permission of the landowners.

These traps, nominally set to catch furbearers like lynx and coyote, are often hidden and baited with rotting meat and animal attractants that make it difficult for even the most attentive owners to keep curious dogs away from them. And when dogs are caught, even owners who have attended trap release training sessions often struggle or fail to release their terrified and injured animals. Some traps, like the Conibear 330, mortally injure or kill dogs so quickly that most efforts to free them simply become body recoveries. Traps in Alaska have caught or killed search and rescue dogs, hunting dogs, sled dogs on mushing trails, and a large number of family pets.

Every trapping season brings a fresh set of tragedies and near-tragedies for Alaska dogs and their owners. The following occurred just this winter:

• Mary Beth Koster’s dog Abby was lured into and killed by a heavily baited Conibear 330 trap set off of the popular multi-use Snow River trail near Seward.

• On the Palmer Hay Flats, Philip Kincaid’s dog Sam Malone was caught and killed in a snare.

• In Homer, two dogs were trapped on the popular Watermelon Trail and narrowly escaped due to the efforts of their owners.

• In March, Juliette Boselli’s small dog was caught by a conibear trap at a trailhead on the Denali Highway.

These are only the incidents reported in the Alaska press. For many who watch their dogs die in traps, these experiences are intensely traumatic and are never shared with the public. Others are reluctant to report trap encounters out of fear that they will face prosecution under state law for interfering with the trap.

No state agency compiles data about dogs injured or killed by traps.

Though the annual killing of dogs in traps has a feeling of grim inevitability, it is in fact a result of deeply entrenched, antiquated laws and a broken regulatory system that elevates the concerns of the 0.3% of Alaskans who trap and categorically rejects the most minimal, reasonable requests from other user groups who wish to safely use public outdoors spaces.

First, some context. Commodity trapping of land-based furbearers once played an important economic role in Alaska, peaking roughly in the 1920s before being overtaken by more lucrative natural resource industries. Since then, the economic value of fur trapping in the state has plummeted. Fur is now a largely obsolete material in the outdoor industry, long ago replaced by lighter, more durable, better-performing down and synthetics.

Culture has changed too. Once synonymous with fashion and luxury, fur is now banned at a large and increasing number of apparel companies, shows and magazines.

Regardless of the underlying reasons, the commercial importance of commodity fur — and particularly trapped fur — has evaporated. North America’s last major fur auction house, NAFA, filed for the Canadian equivalent of bankruptcy in 2019. The Fur Rondy fur auction, once a bustling and crowded Anchorage event, has become a sparsely attended and awkward spectacle in which auctioneers can be seen pleading with the crowd to buy furs for a few dollars in order to preserve “our way of life.”

Writing for this paper last year, outdoor writer and trapper John Schandelmeier noted that the 2020-2021 trapping season saw “zero market for the majority of fur animals.”

Traditional subsistence trapping is still practiced in Alaska, especially in rural parts of the state. But the reality is that trapping near Alaska’s major railbelt and Southeast population centers is, overwhelmingly, an unprofitable hobby with a small number of practitioners. Unlike most hobbies, however, trapping regularly has devastating consequences for other user groups.

At the same time that commodity fur trapping has dwindled to economic insignificance, other user groups have ballooned. Many thousands of Alaskans now ski, hike, snowshoe, fatbike, hunt, mush dogs and Nordic ice skate in the winter months. The growth of these activities is an immense public good, contributing to the mental and physical health of countless Alaskans and to Alaska’s vibrant outdoor culture. The outdoor industry is a bright spot for Alaska’s economy and attracts many thousands of visitors to the state annually. Alaska’s recreation opportunities play a central role in making the state an attractive place to live, work and raise a family.

Alaska trapping groups claim that, in order to avoid traps, all dogs accompanying those who venture onto public lands during the winter months should be physically leashed at all times. To be blunt, this belief is absurd. Physically leashing a dog while biking, skating, or skiing is often impossible or dangerous. Hunting dogs, search and rescue dogs, and sled dogs running alongside mushers for training purposes cannot do their jobs while leashed.

These facts are recognized by laws governing most public lands in Alaska, which do not require dogs to be physically leashed. Many so-called “leash laws” do not require physical leashes.

Though trapping groups often make much of “sharing” public lands, it should go without saying that an outdoor space littered with baited snares and Conibear traps cannot truly be a “multi-use” area for the same reason that a rifle range cannot occupy the same physical space as a playground. The uses are incompatible because the activities of one group create obvious and significant danger for members of other groups.

Speaking of playgrounds, in 2017, the Mat-Su Borough crafted a proposal to stop trappers from setting dangerous traps in borough parks and recreational areas, including playgrounds (traps can and do injure people – including children).

Amazingly, a number of trappers protested the proposal.

It is hard to imagine what “way of life” requires Conibear 330 traps next to jungle gyms, but this incident exemplifies a disturbing pattern in Alaska: trapping groups frequently refuse to concede an inch to other public land users and, with very few exceptions, they get everything they want. A great deal of the reason for this can be traced back to a state regulatory body called the Board of Game.

The Alaska Board of Game exercises immense power over hunting and trapping regulations throughout the state, and its decisions are often mirrored by corresponding federal land managers. Its seven members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature.

Though Alaska law stipulates that members must be selected with a “view to providing diversity of interest and points of view in the membership,” in practice the Board of Game operates as a de facto governmental wing of pro-trapping groups. The board is packed with trappers and trapping advocates, including the owner of a fur tannery and one former chair and board member of the Alaska Trappers Association. Compared with the general population of Alaska, trappers are over-represented on the board by a factor of at least 100.

The term for this kind of takeover of a regulator by those it’s meant to regulate is “regulatory capture.” Imagine a government tobacco regulatory board packed with tobacco industry lobbyists and former employees, and you get the idea.

In recent years, the Board of Game has reliably rolled back or rejected numerous simple, common-sense rules designed to prevent conflicts between trappers and other user groups. In 2016, acting on a proposal submitted by the Alaska Trappers Association, the Board unanimously voted to remove a statewide requirement for trap ID tags. This change makes it extremely difficult to identify trappers who set traps in dangerous locations or trap out of season, and allows trapping groups to blame unethical trap placements and dog deaths on shadowy, always-unnamed “young,” “unethical” or “inexperienced” trappers. In fact, many traps that maim or kill dogs are placed in multi-use areas by experienced trappers. Two of the four trailside trapping incidents this year cited above, for example, involved traps placed by longtime trappers (the identities of the trappers behind the other two incidents are not known to the author).

The Board of Game has been particularly hostile to the establishment of trapping setbacks from public multi-use areas. In 2019, the Board unanimously rejected two proposals to create modest setbacks on public trails, campgrounds, roads and cemeteries in Ketchikan — disregarding overwhelming community support for the measures. The Board unanimously rejected similar efforts on the Kenai Peninsula in 2015.

The Board’s handling of a recent Mat-Su setback proposal not only adds more evidence of its pro-trapping bias but also demonstrates the extent to which the Board operates in bad faith when pretending to consider the needs of other user groups.

In 2021, the Safe Trails program of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance submitted a proposal for 50-yard trapping setbacks on just over 200 designated public multi-use trails in the Mat-Su Valley. The Board of Game instructed members of Safe Trails and the recreation community to negotiate with the Alaska Trappers Association and other pro-trapping groups to reduce the number of trails included in the proposal. However, the negotiation employed a bizarre “consensus” process that allowed any group or individual present to effectively veto the inclusion of any trail. A single trapper drove up to the meeting from Cooper Landing and was able to have multiple Mat-Su trails removed from consideration — including trails he acknowledged he had never used.

In the end, this sham “consensus” process reduced the proposal to only apply to 12 discrete multi-use trail areas. But members of Safe Trails were still cautiously optimistic at the prospect of a rare sliver of progress, and were bolstered by a large showing of public support: The Board of Game received 482 public comments about the proposal, only 36 of which (7.5%) opposed the setbacks.

At the March 10 Board of Game meeting, members of the Board slammed the “consensus” proposal. One Board member stated that it would only encourage people to “illegally recreate with their dogs.” If anyone on the Board disagreed with the insinuation that the hunters, mushers, search and rescue volunteers, skiers, skaters and bikers who travel with dogs are in fact criminals, they made no sign of it.

The Board of Game voted unanimously to reject the proposal.

What is particularly galling about this outcome is that everyone involved, from trail safety advocates to representatives of trapping organizations, agrees — at least in public — that trapping on and adjacent to heavily-trafficked public multi-use corridors is unethical and should not occur. So why do trapping groups and the Alaska Board of Game diligently work to keep trapping in these areas legal?

One answer was provided by Brad Christensen, President of the Southcentral Chapter of the Alaska Trappers Association. After Robert Ahmasuk’s hunting dog Lola was killed by a trailhead trap in 2021, Christensen told Alaska Public Media that regulation of trapping is a slippery slope: “It starts with a little regulation here, a little regulation there and a little bit more there. And next thing, you know, we’re like California…”

One wonders whether Christensen has this exactly backwards: What could be more “Californian” than the claim, repeated ad nauseam by Alaska trapping groups and the Board of Game, that all dogs should be leashed on all public lands all winter long? More importantly, the “slippery slope” argument from the Alaska Trappers Association and other pro-trapping groups has a loud and revealing underlying message: Traumatic dog deaths are a price that Alaskans will simply have to pay in order to assuage our political fears.

As it stands, Alaskans are being held hostage by a tiny population of trappers empowered by their total control of a powerful but grossly unrepresentative political body. At minimum, the governor should dramatically increase the range of viewpoints and backgrounds represented on the Board of Game. But for any meaningful change to take place, the legislature and governor’s office should take action to reform the role of the Board. When it comes to types of trapping that clearly infringe on the ability of other groups to safely use outdoor public spaces, decisions should be made in a collaborative process that involves representation from a more diverse range of affected groups. Parents of young children, skiers, hunters, hikers, search and rescue volunteers, mushers and others deserve to have a seat at this table.

Trappers should have a seat at the table, too. Just not every seat.

Alaska need not apply a one-size-fits all solution to trapping regulation. What works for rural Alaska will be different from what works for the Railbelt. In any case, Christensen need not worry that Alaska will turn into California. Trapping has played a significant role in the history and culture of our state, and it will continue to do so. But Alaska’s identity is not dependent in any way on the setting of dangerous baited traps at well-traveled parking lots and trailheads, on public multi-use trails, at public cabins, and in all other public lands. The 99.7% of Alaskans who do not trap deserve safe places to go with children and dogs in the winter.

Yes, trapping is part of Alaska. But empathy, adaptability, and compromise: these are deeply Alaskan things too.

Paxson Woelber is a born-and-raised Alaskan. He has written about hunting and backpacking for the ADN, and is a co-owner of the Alaska Landmine. He is the founder and owner of Ermine Skate, North America’s first manufacturer of Nordic ice skates.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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