Mat-Su Assembly to reconsider trap bans in popular parks

PALMER — A sweeping ban on traps at eight popular parks around the Valley was left in limbo the day after the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly adopted it.

The Assembly voted 6-1 for the ban at a meeting Tuesday night attended by more than 75 people. Trailside traps meant to catch fur-bearing animals like lynx and fox are also catching pet dogs in increasingly suburban parts of the Mat-Su, where the population now tops 100,000 people.

But a "reconsideration" request Wednesday morning by Assembly member Randall Kowalke means the ban will be reviewed at the body's March 21 meeting and could be changed.

Kowalke said he doesn't intend to "gut" the ordinance but to fix problems — including a question whether the borough even owns two of the areas — created by a confusing flurry of last-minute amendments Tuesday night.

"It wasn't to undo it," he said, adding the 6-1 vote indicates the ordinance probably won't be rejected on the second pass. "We had amendment chaos going on."

Elation among ban backers pressing for restrictions for years turned to disappointment by Wednesday afternoon.

"It almost feels like we've been set up," said Mike Weber, a Lazy Mountain resident whose dog's death in a trap prompted him to help found Alaska Safe Trails Inc., the nonprofit agitating for a ban.

The ban was initially proposed by Assembly member Dan Mayfield, of Big Lake, to restrict traps in two areas: school grounds and the Crevasse Moraine trail system near Palmer. The amendments just before the final vote expanded the scope to add seven additional recreational areas and shifted the focus from a trails setback to a broad ban.

The list grew to include the following places: West Bodenburg Butte; Lazy Mountain; Matanuska Lake; Reflections Lake; Crevasse Moraine; Matanuska River Park; Alcantra Sports Complex and Trail System; and Jordan Lake Park in Big Lake.

Kowalke, who represents the Upper Susitna Valley, said he may also propose adding parks in Willow and in Trapper Creek to the list of no-trapping zones. He has asked for a map showing the areas the ordinance covers and "clear wording to what the ordinance actually says" and wants to resolve the land ownership question.

Two of the areas in the ordinance, Matanuska and Reflections lakes, don't appear to include any borough-owned lands, according to community development director Eric Phillips.

The last-minute amendments also triggered opposition from Wasilla representative Steve Colligan, who voted against the ban Tuesday and criticized the lack of public notice for the amendments, which came after public testimony ended.

[As suburbia replaces frontier, Mat-Su considers restricting trapping for the first time]

Scores of residents at the meeting had urged the Assembly to make trails, mostly in the borough's still-growing core around Palmer and Wasilla, safe for all users.

"I don't have to tell you that the borough's changed," said Ken Thomas, a Lazy Mountain resident who said he's run across traps and snares on ski trails in and out of the winter trapping season. "I'm an avid hunter. I understand there are places for hunting and places not for hunting. I think the same thing should be applied for trapping."

Trappers in the audience said the Alaska Trappers Association tried to work with the borough to establish trap-free parks at Government Peak, Crevasse Moraine and West Butte but that effort faltered.

The group conducts public education workshops on pet and trail safety, posts warning signs in some areas, and is working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to send a mailer to the state's 27,000 licensed trappers, according to Richard Person, with the Southcentral chapter of the Alaska Trappers Association.

Person said a dog park is a better way to deal with the problem of dogs caught in traps.

Then again, he said, he traps in the Prince William Sound area and not suburban Mat-Su parks.

"I don't trap on any of these trails and if anybody asked me I would tell them that's a bad idea," Person said.

Mat-Su joins a long list of Alaska municipalities with some kind of trapping ban, including Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks, Homer and Valdez.

More than 3,500 people signed a petition presented to Mayfield last year asking for a ban on school grounds, at Crevasse Moraine and at Government Peak Recreation Area near Hatcher Pass.

Government Peak was left out because of as-yet unresolved issues with a mix of state and borough lands there, Mayfield said Tuesday. Similar issues exist at Lazy Mountain, he said.

The borough has a rarely enforced leash law on the books. Pet owners with unleashed dogs need to be wary of not only traps but also wildlife like moose or porcupines.

Any trapping ban is also going to be hard to enforce, said chief animal control officer Matt Hardwig, one of four enforcement officers in the 25,000-square-mile borough.

"We're overworked as it is right now," he said in an interview Wednesday. "We're very, very, very reactive."

The proposal calls for $150 fines for a first offense, $300 for the second offense and $500 for the third and any subsequent offenses. Violators forfeit their traps.

It's unclear how often traps or trapped dogs are discovered in the areas potentially covered by a ban.

Borough officials say they know of two, both at Crevasse Moraine, one a loose dog caught in a snare and the other an empty trap.

Alaska Safe Trails president Lynn Mitchell said she's received several reports: a dog caught in a neck snare at Crevasse Moraine; a report of traps in the middle of Alcantra trails; and a trap out of season found at Matanuska River Park. The group's website also describes a young trapper checking rabbit snares at Jordan Lake Park.

Officials say they have never received a report of a leashed dog caught in a trap or snare.

Weber said he knows of at least one: A couple from Anchorage had their leashed dog caught in a foot-hold trap in January 2015 and one of his owners set off smaller traps in the area trying to free him. She and the dog needed medical care, he said.

Longtime trapper Kenny Barber, from Butte, was one of three trappers who testified Tuesday before the amendments were added to the proposed ban.

Barber said he grudgingly supported the original proposal for a ban on school grounds and at Crevasse Moraine but criticized the possibility for a broader prohibition.

There are ways to avoid catching dogs in traps and snares, Barber said.

"I've never caught a domestic animal in my life," he said. "And I've done it since I was 10 years old."

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at