In late November of last year, Jim Maddry and a training partner, both members of the Matanuska Valley's MAT+SAR K9 search and rescue dog unit, had their dogs out on an exercise in one of their frequent training areas: the woods near the Menard Sports Center in Wasilla. As they turned off the trail on a shortcut back to their vehicles, they noticed one of Maddry's dogs, Piper, was missing.
"We called out and heard a yap," Maddry said later over the phone. Only with the help of the other dogs could they find Piper, who is pitch black, trapped in the shadows under a spruce tree with a snare around her neck. "She couldn't bark anymore, she couldn't yap," Maddry said. "I tried to undo the snare but it was so tight -- you have to tighten down to release it, and I was afraid of breaking her neck."
Maddry carries cable cutters for just such a situation. With them, he was able to cut the snare off Piper. When his other dog, Yukon, got several toes caught in a spring trap near where Piper had been snared, Maddry was able to set him free too. Both dogs were ultimately okay. "I was amazed -- they were like, no big deal," Maddry said. "I was the one that was traumatized."
Not all dog-trap encounters in the Mat-Su area end so well. When I called area veterinarians, estimates of how frequently they see dogs with injuries from traps ranged from one every few years to five or six a year at Big Lake-Susitna Veterinary Hospital.
Dr. Adriana Fisher of Big Lake-Susitna Veterinary Hospital described the injuries that can result. "The Conibear [body hold] traps are pretty much fatal," she said. Even a short stay in a leg-hold trap can result in what Fisher described as "pretty intense flesh wounds" down to the bone, requiring weeks of sedation-assisted bandage changes to heal properly. If a dog is caught in a leg-hold trap for long, the loss of circulation to the trapped limb can result in amputation. A snare around a limb can result in amputation for the same reason -- or death if it's around the neck.
Conflict as population booms
The Alaska Safe Trails website is peppered with a handful of stories about dogs caught in traps that, while technically legal like the traps that caught Maddry's dogs, were set near areas frequented by walkers, skiers and cyclists with their dogs and children. In one of the reported cases, a retired sled dog lost a leg to a snare near the Houston school trails.
"It truly is incompatible to have that kind of activity right next to the trails. It isn't what the trails were designed for," said Lynn Mitchell, the Mat-Su accountant who founded Alaska Safe Trails in response to reports like those featured on the website.
Alaska Safe Trails just began circulating a petition in hopes of generating public support to prohibit trapping in a few specific areas: The Crevasse-Moraine trail system, the Government Peak recreational trail system, and Borough core area schools. Mitchell said the petition had about 100 signatures in two or three days, and that people were uniformly surprised to find that there are currently no rules against trapping in those areas.
Legal traps, illegal dogs
Separating trapping from high-use recreational areas might seem like an easy fix, but there are a few tangles just below the surface. The first is that the borough has a leash law just as Anchorage does, even if it's not frequently enforced. So while the traps that dogs are getting caught in may be legal, the dogs getting caught in them aren't -- with the exception of those participating in an organized activity like Maddry's training exercise.
"Just as a trapper being questioned of their ethics, one could think the same of the owner who allows their dogs to run off leash or get out of their enclosures (which is illegal)," wrote Al Spencer, president of the Southcentral-based Alaska Frontier Trappers Association, in an email.
But legal or not, many dog owners love giving their pets freedom, just as trappers love having the freedom to place their traps. "The combination of new or young trappers and people ignoring the leash law is a recipe for problems," said Pete Buist, past president and spokesman of the statewide Alaska Trappers Association, in a phone interview. "Occasionally you get older or more-experienced folks that trap close to town, but usually that's not the case."
Policing their own?
The second tangle is determining who actually has the authority to ban traps set on borough lands, and how. Trapping falls under the legal purview of Alaska's Board of Game, but municipal governments do have some indirect control -- if they can walk the tightrope of exercising their power in a way that's not pre-empted by state law. The Mat-Su Borough attorney's office recommended against a proposed 2013 ordinance to limit trapping for exactly that reason.
In several cases, the Alaska Trappers Association has stepped in to negotiate a resolution between trappers and other user groups. "We feel it's better to work out a cooperative agreement, rather than to force the issue through via ordinance," said Buist in an email. "We realize that a municipality can close lands OWNED by said municipality to some activities, but the normal tendency of municipal governments in the heat of public outcry is to try and restrict trapping on all sorts of land."
But Alaska Safe Trails isn't asking, and the Alaska Trappers Association isn't offering to broker a solution in this case. "We're not even saying we're trying to ban trapping. Why should we even have to ask for [these restrictions]? It's so logical," said Mitchell in a phone call.
Mitchell says that Alaska Safe Trails is trying to work through local government because the organization is asking for very narrow, specific restrictions. But in a phone call Ken Marsh, information officer with the state's Division of Wildlife Conservation, pointed out that anybody can present a proposal to the Board of Game to adjust trapping regulations in the Mat-Su Borough or anywhere else in the state.
The Game Board will be holding its Central/Southwest Region meeting at Wasilla's Lake Lucille Inn Feb. 13-Feb. 20. The deadline for lodging a comment has already passed, but they will be accepting public testimony and trapping is expected to come up as an issue.
Protecting your dog
What about protecting your dog now? Keeping him on a leash is definitely the best bet for his safety and yours. "[The leash law] is not to keep your dog out of a trap, although it will," said Hugh Leslie, recreation and library services manager for the borough. He and Marsh pointed out that the leash law also protects dogs from a number of other hazards: Being hit by a cyclist or snowmachiner, stalked by coyotes or wolves, or charging back to you with an angry mama moose or bear in tow -- all of which have happened in Southcentral Alaska.
If you do run your dogs off-leash or let them explore off-trail on a long leash, you can take a page out of Maddry's book and carry cable cutters to increase your chances of quickly rescuing them from a trap or snare. You can also watch a series of videos on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website that show how to release your dog from several types of traps, along with common signs that you might be on a trapline. Search for "sharing the trails" to find this information, along with a downloadable brochure.
Finally, I contacted the Alaska State Troopers to find out if releasing your own pet from a trap could incur any sort of legal liability. Capt. Bernard Chastain, operations commander for the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, said that it does not. But springing other traps can expose you to legal action. If you see a trap that you believe is illegally set or poses a public safety hazard, the best thing to do is call the troopers.
"We get phone calls all the time," Chastain said over the phone. "We'd be glad to go out and check to make sure those [traps] are set in a legal location and not something that's going to cause a public safety hazard for everybody."