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Mat-Su adopts new rules for dog mushers

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 20, 2014

PALMER -- The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has become the first place in Alaska, maybe anywhere, to enact an ordinance just for sled dog mushers.

The borough Assembly on Wednesday night unanimously adopted a new ordinance that adds mushing-friendly provisions to the animal care code, including eased noise restrictions for barking sled dogs, but also requires proper feeding and other care.

The Valley, with its large lots tucked into trees, is home to dozens of professional distance and sprint mushers as well as countless recreational sled dog kennels. Twenty-three of the 73 mushers signed up for the 2015 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race hail from the Valley, particularly Willow, Knik and Big Lake.

But the borough's steady growth can put mushers in conflict with traffic, trail users and residents fed up with loud dog teams next door.

Assembly member Vern Halter, an Iditarod veteran with a tourist-drawing dog kennel in Willow, created what even he admits are "self-serving" regulations to protect mushing from development.

"As the population of the Mat-Su Borough grows, there is pressure on dog kennels ... they've been pushed out of the Meadow Lakes area and the more populated areas," Halter said Wednesday morning, before running his dogs with a four-wheeler. "It's a better way to license. It's the first in the nation that even defines a sled dog. We couldn't find another one."

The new regulations ramp off outgoing Gov. Sean Parnell's August endorsement of Alaska as a "right to mush" state, he said.

Among its provisions: a three-year mushing facility license for anywhere from five to more than 90 dogs once a musher holds a standard kennel license for at least three years.

The ordinance defines sled dogs as a "member of the genus and species Canis Familiaris that is domesticated, owned and used to pull a sled or vehicle under the control of a musher" and categorizes them as livestock, kept for "use or profit."

Putting dogs on tethers is specifically protected -- that's in response to opposition to from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and some Alaskans, officials say -- but the new rules also mandate uniform standards for watering, feeding, cleaning and other care.

The ordinance also "acknowledges that sled dog kennels are naturally places of noise and commotion" and exempts them from the animal annoyance provision in the animal-care code.

And it enacts low-level criminal charges for anyone caught interfering with dog kennels or sled dog teams.

Violators could face a $200 fine for failing to meet care standards and $100 or $500 fines for interference.

A memo accompanying the new legislation cites examples of people dropping trees on trails to block dog teams, shooting in the air to scare them or stalking and threatening mushers.

Willow kennel owner Justin High on Wednesday evening described to the Assembly "aggressive outside influences" from mushing critics.

"In recent years, we've seen trails being blocked and derogatory signs posted against us in our own neighborhoods," said High, who runs The High's Adventure Kennel with his wife, Jaimee.

A few Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race celebrities joined the half-dozen mushers urging passage of the ordinance during Wednesday's meeting at the borough building in Palmer.

DeeDee Jonrowe, an Iditarod fixture and fan favorite, stood at the public microphone in a bright pink hoodie.

"I believe this ordinance is really helping to design the framework for the quality facilities that I think we would like to see all sled dogs have available to them," Jonrowe said. "We know there is always a low denominator and a high denominator."

Mushing is a "major hobby" for many Alaskans but also "a major industry" supporting a labor niche that includes mushers, kennel managers and handlers, Big Lake's Cim Smyth, an Iditarod regular who won the Tustumena 200 in 2012, said Wednesday night.

"I pay my taxes with money I make racing sled dogs, raising sled dogs," Smyth said, adding that he sells dogs all over North America and Europe.

But borough budget hawk Patty Rosnel urged caution. There's no money for code compliance to enforce these new rules, Rosnel told the Assembly.

And veterinarian Sabrieta Holland, who grew up in the far-flung Petersville area, expressed concern with a part of the ordinance that lets mushers train unlimited numbers of unrestrained young dogs alongside full-grown teams in harness.

That team could run into trouble with a family with small children and the family dog or a horse rider on a public trail, Holland said. "I'd be quite concerned meeting up with a bunch of loose huskies that might not listen to voice control being that they're puppies."

Social media buzzed Wednesday with some Valley residents alarmed at reduced noise protections and huge dog lots against property lines, though those points didn't come up in public testimony Wednesday night.

Halter said he planned to deal with Holland's concerns -- as well as provisions for setbacks from neighbors -- by fine-tuning the animal-care code.

Frank Rich, the Willow kennel owner convicted of animal cruelty after the borough seized about 170 neglected huskies from his property in 2011, was at the Wednesday hearing but only in spirit.

The ordinance shows there are "qualified mushers out there that want to take advantage of this escalated quality control system," said John Wood, who chairs the borough Animal Care and Regulation Board but was providing a personal opinion Wednesday night. "I would hope the press would start looking at this when they start writing about malnourished dogs."

Contact Zaz Hollander at zhollander@alaskadispatch.com.

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