State: Snares legal despite lack of landowner permission

zhollander@adn.comNovember 29, 2013 

Land leaseholders Mark Loomis and Nicolene Jordan posted a no trespassing sign at an access point near Colony High School after they discovered snares on the land. Authorities say setting traps or snares on private land isn't illegal unless access points are posted with signs. November 2013.

PHOTO BY MARK LOOMIS

WASILLA -- Nearly 40 snares baited with moose heads turned up earlier this month on land Nicolene Jordan leases for a gravel pit near Colony High School.

Jordan and her husband, Mark Loomis, say they didn't give anyone permission to trap on the land outside Palmer.

Nor did property owner Ralph Kircher, who now lives in Washington state but spent most of his 77 years on the 160-acre family homestead.

The name on a permit posted at the snares was John Cyr -- a longtime Alaska State Trooper who works wildlife cases out of Palmer.

Jordan filed a complaint Nov. 16 with the Department of Public Safety's Office of Professional Standards. That same weekend, the couple got a visit from troopers Sgt. Mark Agnew, following up on the complaint.

The verdict: Cyr and his trapping partner did nothing illegal, troopers said this week. That's because their access point wasn't posted with signs warning against trespass.

"If the land's not posted, it may be trespassing in your mind but it's not criminal trespassing by Alaska statute," said Alaska Wildlife Trooper Capt. Burke Waldron, who supervises Agnew and Cyr.

Cyr did not return calls for comment.

But his trapping partner, Rick Ellis, did.

Ellis, former president of the Alaska Frontier Trappers Association, said he and Cyr trapped that same area -- an old potato field next to Colony High School -- last year because there was no sign posted at the access area off the road.

A 60-year-old disabled veteran, Ellis said he looks for trapping sites he can access easily.

This year, Ellis said, he'd set the snares for fox and coyote but the pair hadn't started trapping yet.

The only illegal thing that happened in mid-November, Ellis said Wednesday, was that Loomis pulled his snares, which he still doesn't have back.

"My rights as a trapper were violated when the husband removed my equipment," he said. "If anybody broke the laws, they did. Not me."

He said he hadn't decided yet whether to press charges.

LANDOWNERS: BE WARNED

Property owners may not realize it, but Alaska statutes on criminal trespass put a significant burden on them to provide notice, Waldron said.

"The trespassing law is very specific on what constitutes 'posting,' " he said.

As defined by state law, signs warning against trespass must measure at least a square foot, be posted at each road and known access point, and include the property owner's name and address plus anyone else's who can OK access.

No sign marked the place where the trapper walked onto the Kircher land, everybody involved agrees.

But there were signs on another part of the property near the new Trunk Road traffic roundabout, Jordan said.

"If you have 'No Trespassing' signs on the front of the property and he comes in the back, how can it be legal?" she asked.

Jordan, who owns Central Gravel Products, called the state's interpretation a "loophole" and said Cyr should have known the land was private.

The logs piled at the edge of the field showed somebody didn't want people entering there, she said. Cyr also lives nearby and knows about the gravel pit because she's sold gravel to him.

"He knows full well what's going on on that property," Jordan said. "Those snares were set all the way to the face of the bank where we dig gravel."

Ellis, Cyr's partner, said the lack of signs at the access made all the difference.

"Lacking the presence of any signs, anybody can go anywhere they want," he said. "They can trap, they can hunt, they can do whatever."

He also said that the pair stopped once it became clear the property owner and leaseholders didn't like the snares.

"No harm, no foul," he said. "Nobody broke any laws."

A sign now marks the access point at the potato field near the high school.

ETHICAL VIOLATION?

Authorities say Cyr didn't violate criminal trespass or state game laws. The permit posted at the snares says the moose heads were legally obtained from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

But he apparently disregarded state guidelines for ethical trapping practices. The guidelines -- recommendations rather than enforceable laws -- urge trappers to get landowner permission before trapping on private land.

Property owner Kircher said Cyr never asked his permission before setting snares.

"I was never contacted and I would never allow that," he said. "My dad used to trap in the '30s so I understand the Alaska tradition, but for a guy that works for the (troopers) that doesn't seem right."

Kircher said a trapper could easily find who owns his land through the Mat-Su Borough and then contact him.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Alaska Trapping Regulation booklet tells trappers it's their "responsibility as a conscientious trapper" to check with a private landowner first. The booklet's back page also includes the "Code of Ethics" from the Alaska Trappers Association.

Number four: Get landowner permission before trapping on private land.

"The trooper should have that (booklet) because that's the regulations he's supposed to be enforcing," said Keith Bayha, a Glacier View trapper who sits on the association's state and Southcentral boards of directors. "He should know that. He probably also knows it's not criminal trespass if it's not posted."

'NOT THAT UNUSUAL'

Trapping in Alaska remains a popular industry and hobby. Fish and Game sold more than 35,900 resident trapping licenses for the 2011-2012 season and 97 non-resident licenses, though not all licensees ended up trapping, an agency spokesman said. It's said there are about a thousand serious trappers in Alaska.

A Fish and Game spokesman said all the agency can do is encourage trappers to set snares and traps responsibly.

"It's their responsibility to check with landowners before they trap," Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh said. "But beyond that, those aren't our laws. We do hunting and fishing laws. As far as trespass laws, the state troopers would be enforcing those."

It's not uncommon for wildlife troopers around the state to field complaints about hunters and trappers on private property, Waldron said. The Palmer office alone has received three complaints, including the Cyr matter, since trapping season opened Nov. 10, he said.

Bayha, a retired biologist, said many trappers work hard to maintain positive relations with the public. He sets his traps miles from any road and posts signs to warn trail users.

People who set traps or snares on private land should -- but don't always -- take the time to find out who owns it, Bayha said.

"That can be found out if they work at it hard enough but it takes time and energy," he said. "For most trappers, time is everything."

Ellis, asked about the ethics of trapping without permission on private land, said the code was structured after Lower 48 states, where notification is a legal requirement. Alaska, with huge amounts of unposted property, is different.

"A lot of what would apply in the Lower 48 doesn't apply up here," he said. "If (Jordan) had made it known she didn't want me on there, then certainly I would have honored that. But otherwise it's fair game."


Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 

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