All set for day-long ski trip in the backcountry: skis, check; lunch, check; dog and dog biscuits, check; Conibear trap opener ... how's that? It's trapping season and some form of Conibear trap opener is now necessary if you ski or snowshoe with your dog in the backcountry of much of Southcentral Alaska.
In the past dogs have usually been trapped by leg-hold traps like the kind Rep. Don Young famously sprung onto his hand during a 1975 congressional hearing to make the point they are not inhumane. During his testimony Young stated he ran a line of 500 traps, (It must have been when he was a Fort Yukon school teacher; I don't think they allow trapping on the National Mall.) He stated a lynx he trapped lived for six weeks because other lynx were feeding it (curiously making the point that lynx are more humane than some humans). During testimony the committee chairman pointed out Young's fingers were turning blue, whereupon he removed the trap.
I've had to release two dogs from traps: one my own, and one that had been missing, I later learned, for three days when I came upon it. Leg-hold traps hold the animal until the trapper returns and clubs it to death. Trappers are supposed to check their traps at least every five days so the animal doesn't starve. Both dogs I released were bruised but OK; you can normally release a dog unharmed from a leg- hold trap. A neighbor in Kasilof said he doesn't know of anyone who regularly walks or snowshoes with their dog that hasn't had one trapped.
Conibear traps are a different matter. When the wolf, coyote or lynx sticks its head into the set trap to reach the bait it snaps shut with such power the spinal cord is severed or the trachea is squeezed shut and the animal suffocates. Trappers and wildlife managers argue this is more humane than leg-hold traps because the animal dies quickly and there is less chance of prolonged suffering.
What works for a wolf or coyote works for your dog. One moment you're enjoying a time-honored Alaska tradition of snowshoeing along a backcountry trail and the next your dog is in the brush shrieking in pain. Depending on how he's caught, how big the trap is, and how big he is, he'll die within minutes. You may be able to free him with a Conibear trap setter or a correctly knotted rope. In an indoor practice session it took a strong man five minutes to undo a trap and that was with no dying dog in it. Web sources say the traps are designed to kill in less than five minutes.
Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Refuge personnel argue trappers are carrying on a long Alaska tradition. True, but with one big difference. Unlike lonesome trappers of yore who eked out a living until fishing season, today's trappers are mostly mechanized weekend recreational trappers. When one adds up the gear, the gas, and the time, they're not likely to break even. Most trap for fun, not for a living.
Out in the Bush, trapping is different. Men (mostly) trap and women (mostly) make functional and beautiful fur garments that carry on traditions and defray the cost of expensive outdoor clothing. But on the road system trapping is not a necessary activity and is mostly of the "gee, I'm an Alaskan" variety of outdoor activity.
Neither is trapping in the Southcentral road system necessary for wildlife management. Predator populations largely manage themselves. A few years ago there weren't many hares and there weren't many lynx. This year there are a lot of hares and a lot of lynx (or should be; the well over 100 lynx trapped on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge last winter put a big dent in that population).
You could argue that wolf trapping on the road system means more moose for hunters. Maybe to some degree, but the fact is the human population of Southcentral Alaska is far too large for everyone who wants a moose to get one. You can kill all the wolves in the Railbelt and there still won't be enough moose. It's not 1960 anymore.
But it's dogs I'm worried about. There is no compelling reason to allow use of Conibear traps on the road system of Southcentral Alaska. No one should have to bring their dead dog back on their shoulders because of a Conibear trap.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.