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Wildlife trooper sued for trapping trespass agrees to settlement

Zaz Hollander
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

PALMER -- An Alaska Wildlife Trooper and his trapping partner have agreed to settle a trespassing lawsuit filed against them by the operator of a gravel pit near the suburbia that surrounds Colony Middle School.

Central Gravel Products owners Nicolene Jordan and Mark Loomis filed the suit in December, saying John Cyr and Rick Ellis set at least 38 moose-baited snares on an old potato field between the school and the active pit without permission from them or the absentee landowner whose family homesteaded the area.

Under the terms of a settlement, Cyr and Ellis have already paid $250 in damages and agree not to trap on the gravel pit property again, according to a March 10 order signed by Palmer Superior Court Judge Eric Smith.

The order also "trespasses" Cyr and Ellis from the property: it will be a crime if they return without permission.

The two trappers admitted no wrongdoing, according to the court order.

They denied media reports that they caught two coyotes and two foxes on the property last winter, as well as the contention that Cyr lives near the pit or knew he was trapping near an active business because he purchased gravel there, according to a January filing in the case. Cyr did admit to buying gravel. The pair also admitted they posted a bait station permit with Cyr's name on it at a tree on the pit property.

The case put a rare public spotlight on the limited private property protections afforded by Alaska's trespass laws when it comes to hunting and trapping -- even in urbanized areas like the Mat-Su, where snares or traps may show up near a busy road, popular dog-walking areas, or a school.

State law doesn't require trappers get permission before setting traps or snares on private property; the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommends they make contact with landowners first but can't force them do it.

"Now people are more aware that there's something to be done," Jordan said Monday. "We need to change the wording of the law so it's easier to understand. If an Alaska State Trooper can't understand the law, who can?"

She said she never got a response to a Nov. 17 personnel complaint filed with the state Department of Public Safety about Cyr's conduct. She plans to pursue additional action.

Cyr's supervisor, Capt. Burke Waldron, said any action taken on the complaint would be considered confidential.

Cyr, a longtime trooper who works wildlife cases out of Palmer, didn't respond to a text message asking for comment.

Ellis, a former president of the Alaska Frontier Trappers Association, directed questions to his lawyer, Palmer attorney Curtis Martin.

Will the settlement change where he traps?

"Well, can't trap there," Ellis said. "Can't trespass there, which is not a big deal. Same thing would have happened if (we had asked for permission and) they said no to us."

Waldron responded to a series of questions about the case by email.

Asked if troopers trapping for extra cash away from work poses a conflict, he said he didn't believe so and several other troopers have trapped over the years.

While the state puts limitations on wildlife officers working as big game guides, there are no such limits - or any consideration of limits - on trapping, he said.

The lawsuit won't change the way troopers handle trespass complaints, Waldron said. "If a criminal trespass has occurred we will take appropriate law enforcement action. If no criminal trespass has occurred we won't take criminal action."

His comments reflect the difference between criminal statute -- the laws enforced by troopers -- and the realm of civil law, where the gravel pit operators brought their claims against Cyr and Ellis. Criminal cases generally involve crimes against society while civil ones usually involve disputes where individuals claim someone else has failed to carry out their legal duty to them.

Several longtime Anchorage attorneys interviewed about the trapping trespass case have said Cyr and Ellis may not have done anything criminal, but that doesn't mean what they did was legal.

Since the snares first came to light in November, however, state officials have argued that Cyr did nothing wrong.

Under Alaska's criminal statute, it's legal for trappers or hunters to access "unimproved and apparently unused land" unless the land is marked with 144-square-inch signs that give information about the people who can grant access, and specify prohibitions like "No Hunting" or "No Trespassing". Signs can't just be posted in one spot; they must be visible at each access point on the property.

The place where Jordan and Loomis say the trappers entered the property wasn't marked by a sign though the land was posted elsewhere, Jordan has said.

The lawsuit, however, claimed that signs weren't required because the land was "clearly not" unimproved or unused.

"The homestead was used for potato cultivation for many years and, for the last 21 years, for ongoing gravel extraction," the original complaint states. "Snares were set within a dozen feet of excavations and gravel storage piles. Therefore there could have been no question in any reasonable persons [sic] mind about the land being 'apparently unused.'"

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


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com