WASILLA -- A sudden spate of dogs caught in traps in the Valley is galvanizing a push to ban snares and traps around schools and some trails as the frontier pursuit bumps up against population growth.
Kyle Drasky was one of five people to report dog encounters with snares or traps in December, according to Alaska Safe Trails, a group pushing for more restrictions in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Drasky figured he had seconds to get to Coco, his family's young sled dog mix, before the snare around her neck killed her as his young daughters looked on.
"They were hysterical. They were screaming and crying," he said. "I was just thinking the whole time: 'Please do not let my dog die in front of my kids.' It was, like, a week before Christmas."
'Go out in the woods'
Drasky's 6- and 8-year-olds and two friends ran ahead with the dog during a snowmachine-sledding trip near the family's home on the back of Lazy Mountain.
By the time Drasky heard the children yelling, the metal cable loop used to trap foxes, coyotes, lynxes or wolves had left the dog unresponsive, her tongue purple and her eyes rolled back in her head.
Drasky removed the snare with techniques he learned on a trapping trip years ago with a friend. The 41-year-old Palmer High School government teacher started chest compressions.
By all appearances, his dog was dead.
Then Drasky's friend ran up and gave Coco a few quick punches to her diaphragm and she started breathing again. It took about 20 minutes, and she was sitting up. She's since recovered.
Drasky, an avid angler and hunter who's done bear baiting, said he's increasingly frustrated with traps set in the wrong places. He said he's snagged some snares literally set across trails that caught the skis of his snowmachine. Lately, traps turned up in his neighborhood, even right across from a driveway.
"I'm not saying banish trapping at all, but get 'em off the trails," Drasky said. "If they're going to be out there pretending to be Davy Crockett, maybe they could go out in the woods a little bit."
Coco's run-in with a snare illustrates the need for limits on where traps can be set, according to Alaska Safe Trails president Lynn Mitchell. The group the Palmer CPA founded has gathered more than 3,500 signatures in a bid to ban traps on borough core-area school property and two popular recreation destinations: Government Peak Recreation Area and the Crevasse-Moraine Trail System.
"We stopped gathering them months ago," Mitchell said of the signatures. "We could probably have double that number."
Many people signed and said they hoped the borough would expand trapping restrictions beyond the three proposed areas, she said.
Along with Drasky, Butte resident David Andrew Bear Meagher said his 13-year-old Lab-chow mix Koda was caught by a snare about 50 feet off a trail near the confluence of the Matanuska and Knik rivers. Koda survived but only after Meagher dragged the dog out on his jacket in 15-degree weather, snare still wrapped around his neck and shoulder. Meagher said he saw his neighbor at the vet later; her dog had been caught in a Conibear body-hold trap that same day.
Meager said he now carries a heavy backpack full of gear recommended to get dogs out of traps and snares "just to walk a half-mile from my house."
Alaska Safe Trails in December also received anonymous reports of dogs caught in a snare near Wasilla-Fishhook Road and near the Knik River, according to Mitchell.
Assemblyman Dan Mayfield, a trails advocate who represents the Big Lake area, said last week that he's considering sponsoring some kind of legislation to bring the group's proposal forward but hasn't decided yet.
"Those two trails are some of the more higher-use trails in the borough," Mayfield said. "I have to say that I'm probably leaning toward that but I just haven't committed as of yet. I just want to make sure that I'm aware of both sides of the conversation."
Laws favor trappers
Many towns and cities ban trapping within city limits. But outside those, trapping largely falls under the purview of the state Board of Game. Those regulations generally say that trapping near trails is legal.
It's the dog owners who are breaking the law: With some exceptions, Mat-Su Borough regulations call for dogs to be physically restrained off an owner's property, though that requirement is rarely enforced.
The Department of Fish and Game received 16 reports of dogs caught in snares or traps during the 2014-2015 trapping season that runs from October through the end of spring, according to wildlife biologist Todd Rinaldi in Palmer. One was a confirmed fatality: a Weimaraner killed in a body-hold trap. The reports came from outside Palmer to Houston, Meadow Lakes, Big Lake and Willow. About 10 were off-leash and the rest ran off from home, Rinaldi said. At least four dogs had previous encounters with traps, he said.
The state hasn't received any reports of dogs caught so far this trapping season, and they haven't heard about the five encounters reported to Alaska Safe Trails, Rinaldi said.
Don't set 'in dumb places'
The last time Mat-Su lawmakers considered limits on trapping on borough lands was during a 2013 rewrite of animal control laws, when the Mat-Su Assembly opted against any restrictions.
Assemblyman Matthew Beck, whose wife owns a Palmer veterinary clinic, said the Assembly opted against trapping rules because the animal care code addressed pets, not wild animals. Beck said the decision also reflected a belief that trapping largely falls under state laws and limited staff meant the borough might struggle to enforce what authority it has.
At that time, Assembly members heard from the public and the Alaska Trappers Association, a statewide group of just under 1,000 members that advocates for trail user education instead of new regulations.
The association doesn't condone setting traps in what spokesman Pete Buist calls "inappropriate" places.
"We campaign very hard at least to inform our membership and to try and convince other people as well, even if they don't belong, not to set in dumb places," said the Fairbanks resident and former board president of the group.
So, what's a dumb place? That's a matter of common sense -- which can be elusive these days, Buist said.
The group doesn't support trapping for foxes, lynxes or wolves on established, well-known public trails, but banning all trapping would prohibit smaller sets for things like martens that won't catch dogs, he said. "The overkill approach is not very interesting to us."
Signs already up
Beck said he hopes the borough can work with the association to post signs discouraging trapping in certain areas -- the three proposed by Alaska Safe Trails, for example -- and also instructing dog owners to use leashes.
He also said many residents may feel the time has come for new trapping limits.
"I think if you ask most people in the Valley, 'Should I be able to walk my dog at Government Peak, Crevasse Moraine, near a school, without a leash and feel free they're OK?' I bet you most people would say yes," Beck said.
Trappers association members say they did place signs at Crevasse Moraine last year, as well as Mud and Jim lakes and the Pioneer Peak ridge trail areas near the Knik River, Buist said. Four signs were torn down and were replaced about a month ago, he said. It's not clear who tore the signs down.
Drasky, Coco's owner, lives with his family on Wolverine Lake near Lazy Mountain and said neighbors with horses are deeply concerned about the proliferation of traps and snares near and in trails. He said if he finds a trap in a trail, he sets it to the side and the trapper usually gets the hint. But finding snares that snag his snowmachine skis or left out through the summer, outside trapping season, is spurring his call for some form of regulations.
"I've done bear baiting. There (are) very rigorous regulations with that," Drasky said. "Since the trapping community refuses to police itself, that's kind of what regulations are for."