Trappers and dog-owners at odds over new restrictions in Anchorage

On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly voted in favor of a policy change that could affect animal trapping. After recent reports of dogs dying from getting caught in traps, the goal of the new ordinance is to further restrict the practice within the municipality.

Rebecca Schaffer gives her two dogs, Ax and Kai, tiny orange chunks of cheddar cheese as treats. She’s letting them run around a dog park in Valley of the Moon Park, just off the Chester Creek trail.

It is not her favorite place to come.

“A flat, fenced in area with dusty ground,” Schaffer said. “It reminds me of a cage.”

These are active, oudoorsy animals bred to run. During the winter months, Schaffer is a serious skijorer. Other times of year, she likes to take the dogs out on long, remote hikes where they can run, sniff, and explore. The dog park, a former baseball diamond next to a bus stop, is a poor replacement.

“It’s like a squirrel wheel for outside dogs,” Schaffer summed up.

Part of the reason she is here at the squirrel wheel is because a few months ago her dog Chloe died. In December, they were hiking in a little-trafficked network of trails by Kern Creek, near the site of the old Kern ghost town that is technically within Anchorage’s municipal boundaries. Though not far off from the Seward Highway, by Southcentral Alaska standards, it’s a remote place to hike, with barely any signs of maintenance. In a whole summer of trips there last year, she had only ever run into other people twice.

She knew generally about trapping, but it wasn’t wasn’t a source of concern on her trips around Kern Creek.

“Just like encountering a bear or a moose, or any other thing you can encounter in the woods in Alaska, I thought this is a thing on the list, I’m going to be prepared for that,” Schaffer explained.

She had researched how to spring traps in case your dog gets caught. Little foot snares, as well as bigger contraptions like a 330 Conibear, strong spring-loaded jaws used for targeting beaver, lynx and wolverine. Schaffer even bought one to practice springing. But that wasn’t enough.

“You can’t be prepared for it,” she said.

Her dog Chloe went after some fish-heads that were baiting one a Conibear trap, and it snapped around her neck.

“When I heard her screaming I thought ‘that’s probably a trap.’ And I was hoping it was a foot-hold trap,” Schaffer recalled. “When I got to her and saw that it was the (Conibear) 330 it was like ‘oh no.’”

“There she was,” she went on. “She was hanging from the tree, I had to take her down, and she was just making the most horrible sound you can imagine.”

Even though she knew a little bit about how the device worked, it still took Schaffer an hour-and-a-half to loosen the trap enough for free Chloe. But she was alive.

Schaffer took her to get looked at by a veterinary professional, and though scared and bruised, the doog didn’t appear to be permanently hurt.

“Chloe seemed great after that. And then about eight weeks later, we came home from work and she was dead in her kennel.”

Schaffer can’t say for certain, but she thinks the sudden death was from a blood clot that resulted from the trap.

She’s one of a number of people who were pushing the Assembly to adopt a new ordinance that prohibits setting traps near established trail heads, or within 50 yards of what are called “defined trails.” It also requires that traps set within the municipality have the owner’s identifying information.

Not everyone is on board with these changes. 

“In our minds this ordinance is really a cure in search of a problem,” said Randy Zarnke, president of the Alaska Trappers Association. He flew from Fairbanks to attend an Assembly work session on the ordinance last Friday, and advised the body to consult with the association and bring changes to the Board of Game, who under state law set the rules on trapping in Alaska.

ATA has about 150 members in Anchorage, some of whom do trap in proximity to defined trails, explained the association’s Tom Lessard as he set down clanking metal objects in an Assembly conference room to show members the wide variety of deisgns.

“You got the big dog killing type traps that you’ve probably all seen pictures of,” Lessard explained.

“Here’s a smaller trap right here,” he counted, showing what looked like a flower-pot to nab Marten from tree branches.

“Within 50 yards of a trail, this thing is not a problem,” Lessard said, making the point that while some kinds of traps do pose a threat to dogs, most are benign for residents recreating. He and Zarnke are opposed to mandating identification information on traps. As an enforcement tool, they say, it works poorly, because it means an investigator fouls up a carefully set trap in the process of examining it.

“It interferes with the trapper’s trapping, directly,” Lessard said.

There are other technical points that Lessard says would make the ordinance difficult to enforce. But the bigger legal disagreement is about land. By establishing buffer zones along the trails, the Trappers Association argues the municipality is infringing on areas that are open to trapping under state regulations.

The Assembly voted 9-2 in support of the measure at Tuesday night’s Assembly meeting.