MOOSE PASS -- A sign of Kenai Peninsula conflicts between dogs and traps marks the start of Chugach National Forest trails to Vagt and Lower Trail lakes, a popular alpine lake access point rimmed by 5,000-foot Kenai Range peaks.
The yellow Alaska Trappers Association sign encourages trappers to "respect other public land users" and reduce potential conflict by avoiding traps near trails, turnouts, populated areas or other high public-use settings.
Then it reminds pet owners to "take responsibility" for their dogs: "Off-leash animals pose a safety issue with other users and themselves."
Trappers say the sign -- one of numerous such postings from Kenai Lake to the Seward library bulletin board -- indicate their willingness to work with hikers, residents and skiers in high-conflict areas on the Kenai Peninsula to avoid catching dogs in traps and snares.
But locals wary of dogs maimed or killed near parking lots or trails at popular spots like Tern or Kenai lakes say signs aren't enough.
They want laws.
That's why the Alaska Board of Game will hear two different proposals to establish no-trapping corridors along trails and campgrounds in Cooper Landing and from Tern Lake to Seward at a five-day Anchorage meeting that starts Friday.
"We're adamant that only legally enforceable rules can guarantee a safe trail," said Mark Luttrell, a Seward resident and author of the Moose Pass-Seward proposal.
The trapping proposal, and another for Cooper Landing, is just one item on the Game Board agenda. Other topics include Dall sheep hunts and a petition for an emergency regulation prohibiting trapping and hunting wolves on state lands along the eastern boundary of Denali National Park.
The two Kenai Peninsula trapping proposals ask the board for essentially the same thing: No trapping on private lands or within 250 feet of most public trails, trail heads and campgrounds. The proposals also seek bans on trapping within 250 feet of private land and special closures in areas including sections of Kenai Lake and the Cooper Landing "organic" dump.
Trappers say the bans would sharply curtail access to a broad area but wouldn't address the source of most conflicts: unleashed dogs.
"These restrictions ... are just way too strict," Soldotna trapper Mike Crawford said. "We've asked the Cooper Landing dog owners to become more responsible pet owners and at the same time we've offered to restrict our trapping activities in certain high-conflict areas."
Like many local trappers, Crawford said, he doesn't earn a living from the wolves, marten, mink and coyotes he targets. Rather, trapping is a recreational pursuit; any income from furs goes to snowmachine fuel and repair.
He owns two dogs and said he keeps traps off mushing trails or sets them away from turns to make sure he doesn't trap dogs.
"I care about animals (but) I enjoy trapping," Crawford said. "The last thing I want to do is catch a dog. I go to great lengths. Dog mushers frequent my trapline. I've never caught one."
Cooper Landing musher Robert Bear wasn't so lucky.
Four years ago, Bear was mushing a team in harness when one of his dogs got wind of a scented leghold trap, veered toward it and got caught, though only bruised. Three winters back, Bear's lead dogs chewed through their lines on Snug Harbor Road -- a recreational and residential access along the south shore of Kenai Lake -- and got caught in traps. One dog lost a foot, the other her front leg.
"The traps were maybe 50 feet off the road," Bear said.
The Kenai Peninsula proposals come in spite of the signs, which resulted from meetings that started last summer between members of the trapping community and Kenai Peninsula residents concerned about dogs and traps. The Alaska Trappers Association started meeting with community members out of concerns about the Kenai Peninsula trapping bans, said Fairbanks-based president Randy Zarnke.
"This was an unrealistic change and so we got involved to try to bring some common sense to it," Zarnke said.
Cooper Landing residents including Ken Green, the resident proposing the trailside trapping ban for that community, met with several representatives from the trapping community including Zarnke as well as staff from local, state and federal agencies. Among them: the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska Wildlife Troopers, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Game Board chairman and Soldotna resident Ted Spraker, a former Fish and Game biologist.
Trappers proposed a voluntary approach where several high-conflict areas would be posted with signs saying the group recommended no traps be set there. Other signs would notify people with pets that there could be traps beyond the boundaries. One site was agreed upon, a popular beach along Kenai Lake. Others followed.
But the trappers pulled out of continued talks by January after Green refused to remove his Game Board proposal to further restrict trappers, Zarnke said.
"The timing wasn't right. If he was at the point where he was willing to negotiate, he should have brought some sort of concession with him," he said. "People are routinely asking trappers to compromise. When you step away and look at the situation, the only people that are giving anything up is the trappers."
Green, who's had two dogs caught in traps but not injured, stands behind the proposal. He says he doesn't trust signs to protect both locals and out-of-town hikers, anglers and skiers visiting Cooper Landing.
Signs just add to dog owners' anxiety when they're posted at trail heads because they don't make it clear whether someone is trapping there or not, he said. "When they put those signs up it's almost like a magnet that says fine, trapping is legal here but it's not recommended. It doesn't alleviate any of the problems."
Trappers put up signs like the one at Vagt Lake trail head despite the disagreement, Zarnke and Crawford said. There have been no reports of dogs caught in traps or snares in the area this year, though biologists say low snow may be reducing trapping effort.
Incidents involving pets and traps on the Kenai Peninsula are nothing new to the area -- or other populated parts of the state. Residents and pet owners from Fairbanks to the Mat-Su to Anchorage to Juneau have reported run-ins between pet owners and trappers. Last year, a wildlife trooper and his partner agreed to pay damages to a Mat-Su gravel pit operator after they set snares without the property owner's permission in a suburban area near Colony Middle School. A Juneau woman was cited by troopers in January after she tripped a trap to free a mortally wounded bald eagle, springing others to protect her dogs and other people.
It's illegal to trap within a half-mile of any road within the city of Juneau or within 50 yards of a marked trail. The 50-yard limit started as a quarter-mile ban the Game Board approved in the late 1980s.
The board could start taking testimony on the Kenai Peninsula proposals on Saturday.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing