Cooper Landing committee crafts trap setback proposal

A man with his hand in a foot trap
Alaska Trappers Association Southcentral President Brad Christiansen shows the effect of a foot trap. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Cooper Landing dog owners are hoping to implement stricter regulations on where traps for fur-bearing animals can be set in order to reduce the risk catching dogs.

Trappers and recreationists have long been at odds over trapping restrictions in Cooper Landing.

Tensions came to a head several years ago when the Alaska Board of Game quashed a proposal to ban trailside trapping, citing a lack of compromise between activists on either side.

Now, several Cooper Landing residents are reigniting the conversation. They’ve surveyed locals on where they’d like to see trapping setbacks and will use the data to craft a proposal for the Board of Game and the Federal Subsistence Management Board.

“A setback is how far off a trail or road or beach that is required for the trapper to have set their trap, to keep it far away from high public-use areas,” said Lorraine Temple of Cooper Landing, who’s spearheading the initiative.

“Not going far back into the backcountry, way far away, but just to give those little slivers of land that we know we can be safe and go outside to ski, skijour our dogs, snowmachine, snowshoe, whatever in the winter,” she said.

Recreationists say traps close to public-use areas can hurt or kill dogs who’ve wandered off trail. It’s happened a number of times in the last several years.

Trappers largely agree it’s a problem, but say dog owners should be responsible for keeping their pets close.

Temple is trying to gauge what kind of setbacks would be acceptable to locals. She sent out over 400 surveys to residents and business owners and received a third of them back. 90% of responders said setbacks are necessary.

The survey proposed a slew of possible setback sites, including the Russian River Trail and the shores of Kenai Lake. Nearly 70% of respondents said they’d like to see setbacks extend a quarter-mile on either side of trails and roadways, while 18% said they’d like to see them 250 feet away. Respondents tended to favor larger setbacks from campgrounds and trailheads.

Despite the apparent consensus, several responses from trappers point to the broader dispute between user groups. Some said uncontrolled dogs can be dangerous, too. One respondent said they’d be more receptive to restrictions on trappers if “there was some give and take with dog owners.”

Dianne MacLean of Soldotna, president of the Kenai Peninsula Chapter of the Alaska Trappers Association, said not all trappers think the same on setbacks.

“Large traps, I think it’s worth talking about,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to talk about setbacks for little muskrat traps that are not going to hurt anybody’s dog.”

But she said it’s a two-way street. 

“I am concerned for trappers that things are becoming more and more difficult, partly because there are more and more people but partly because people want to allow their dogs to run off leash, and then wonder why they run into problems at certain times in the year,” she said. “So I am concerned about that.”

Temple said she’s receptive to feedback about keeping dogs under sight and voice control. Like MacLean, she said she’s willing to compromise and work with trappers.

“We wanted the best representation from the community of what the community wants,” Temple said.

There are multiple federal land managers in the Cooper Landing area. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is the only one with specific trapping restrictions, including setbacks and a ban on trapping along Skilak Lake Road.

Much of the area falls under the purview of the Forest Service, whose trapping regulations generally fall in line with those of the Board of Game. There are some trails in the area that may be used by subsistence trappers.

It’s hard to say if the committee’s proposal will have what it needs to pass. Many attempts to regulate trapping in the area haven’t stuck. Last year, the Safe Trails initiative placed signs on Cooper Landing trails discouraging traps within 400 yards of trails. The Alaska Legislature even considered a bill five years ago that would have banned trapping within 200 feet of public trails: The bill did not pass.

But advocates say as the area becomes more popular, clashes will happen more frequently. Some dog owners, put off by the lack of restrictions on neighboring trails, have made a habit of sticking to refuge trails.

MacLean said she’s willing to sit down with dog owners and talk about what would make the most sense going forward. But she also wants to make sure trappers are still allowed to maintain their practice.

“Trapping is a heritage in Alaska that goes back to way before statehood and way before anybody was even here, other than the people who were born here,” she said. “They trapped. They used fur. And to this day, we use fur, we eat a lot more of the animals than people think. They think we’re just wasting meat, we’re not.”

Temple and the Safe Trails committee must submit a proposal to the Federal Subsistence Board by the end of May. Proposals to the Board of Game aren’t due for another year, since COVID-19 pushed its upcoming meeting back to 2022.