Susanna LaRock/Turnagain Times
Natalie was one of two lead dogs on a mushing team caught in a foothold trap in Cooper Landing. The dog eventually had to have its left front leg amputated.
By Susanna LaRock
Cooper Landing Correspondent
Robb Bear, a Cooper Landing resident and local dog musher, was out Thursday, Dec. 6 with his dog team. Bear had been running his dog team this winter on Snug Harbor Road, a residential road off of the Sterling Highway in Cooper Landing. He started tying the dog team up near Senior Haven, the local senior housing development at mile 2 of Snug Harbor Road, when his two lead dogs got loose and took off running.
The two dogs, Natalie and Juneau, were in harnesses and attached to each other. Bear spent the rest of the day searching for the dogs, but eventually gave up the search and went home without them. He was very worried about the dogs, so he put out a message via the Community Crier, a local daily email newsletter, describing the dogs and where they were lost and asking residents to be on the lookout for them and to call him if they were seen.
Bear spent the next day walking along Snug Harbor Road and calling for his dogs, but still there was no sign of them. On Saturday, Bear decided to take his four-wheeler up Snug Harbor Road to continue his search. He suddenly heard some howling and found his two dogs caught side-by-side in foothold traps about 30 feet off the road, less than a half-mile from Camp K, the local campfire camp. The dogs had survived two nights out in sub-freezing temperatures. He took the dogs to a veterinarian and they were treated with antibiotics to fight off infections.
Bear was upset about his dogs’ injuries and the fact that the traps were set in an area regularly used by locals with dogs and children. He began to look into what could be done about traps close to trails and roads and found that the laws were in favor of the trapper.
He sent another message out to the community through the Community Crier asking that people show up for a Town Hall meeting being held with Sen. Cathy Giessel on Dec. 15. Bear asked residents to show up at the meeting to ask that Sen. Giessel do something to change the laws regarding traps on or near multi-use trails and roads.
About 15 citizens showed up at the meeting to voice their concerns to the senator. Senator Giessel heard some of the grievances and let her aid, Lindsay Williams, respond. Williams referred to the Department of Fish and Game’s code of ethics for trappers and the Alaska Trappers Association’s educational video about how to safely trap.
Most attendees of the meeting were concerned that the video did not address the issue of traps being placed in public use areas in Cooper Landing.
Bear stated at the meeting that “When you put a trap line on a multi-use trail it limits that trail to a single user.”
More than one person reported calling the Board of Game with complaints about trap lines and being told that it was a social issue not a biological issue, and the Board of Game does not deal with that.
Senator Giessel said, “I would be willing to try a legislative fix on this.” She suggested that the issue could be fixed by doing something as simple as redefining a roadway to include a mushing trail.
On Jan. 7 the community of Cooper Landing received a Community Crier message from Bear’s wife, Evie Bear, with an update on Bear’s dogs, which stated that both dogs were healing. “Natalie had to have her front leg amputated and Juneau a toe,” said Evie Bear. “We found out that the lynx traps were illegally set by a man from Moose Pass.” Bear went on to ask that residents report any illegal trapping that they witness to the Department of Fish and Game.
Later it was found that a man from Moose Pass, Doug McRae, did own traps in the area and has been trapping in the area for 25 years.
This reporter contacted Mr. McRae and he confirmed that he has three traps on Snug Harbor Road, but denied that they were illegal lynx traps. McRae also said that no dogs had been caught in his traps.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I could tell if something got caught in my trap,” McRae insisted. “There would be tracks and other signs.”
McRae was very angry about the accusation that the dogs were trapped in his traps and said that he had been checked out by the Department of Fish and Game on Snug Harbor Road in December and no illegal activities were found.
Larry Lewis from the Department of Fish and Game said that it would be difficult to prove that a trap was set specifically for a lynx. “The same size trap could be set for a coyote or similar sized animal,” he said, “so unless the trapper says that he is trapping lynx it can’t be proved.”
Lewis also said that there are many instances of dogs getting caught in traps. He said, “It’s not unheard of for people to use trapper lines for public use and that can create a problem.” He also stated that trappers are not required by law to mark a trap line, and while it may be safer for the public to have a trap line marked. “It’s a catch 22 for the trapper,” he said. “If a trapper marks a trap line it may attract people with ill intent. People who may want to steal traps or furs.”
Tom Lessard, who is a part-time resident of Cooper Landing and local fishing guide, heard about Bear’s dogs being caught in traps through his involvement with the Alaska Trappers Association. He heard that Sen. Giessel had contacted the association about her constituents’ concerns. Lessard has trapped in Cooper Landing for 25 years and been a member of the Alaska Trappers Association for 20 years. Lessard maintains that a responsibly attended dog has little or no risk of injury even when caught in a trap.
“With a closely attended dog, there’s usually little damage to the dog,” he said. Lessard also pointed out that the entire Skilak Loop Viewing area is closed to trapping and dog people would not have to worry about their dogs getting caught in a trap in that large wilderness area.
Lessard along with the Alaska Trappers Association will be offering a “Shared Trails” presentation at the Cooper Landing Community Hall on Friday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. There will be a DVD presentation for dog owners on how to avoid getting your dog caught in a trap, how to recognize signs that you’re on a trap line, and how a trap can be opened to release a dog. There will also be hands on education on how to set and release a few different kinds of traps with the guidance of an Alaska Trappers Association member.
Bear ran his dog team without his two former lead dogs in the Copper Basin 300 in Glenallen on Jan. 12. His team ran 100 miles of the race and pulled out early due to one dog going into heat. After pulling the dog out of the team he didn’t feel confident that his new lead dogs could finish the race.
Bear has not had time to seek out a change in trapping regulations because he’s been busy with his dogs, he said, but he would like to see regulations changed so that traps cannot be set around rural community institutions or residential neighborhoods. He would also like to see some regulation that requires traps to be set a good distance from roads and public use trails, and trappers to mark trap lines.
“In the Lake Louise area near Glenallen there are clear warning signs; there are no traps on trails,” he said.
Bear said this wasn’t the first time one of his dogs was caught in a trap. He had a dog get caught in a trap on Mystery Creek Trail, but he opened the trap and got the dog out with no injury to it.
Bear added that if he had seen clear warning signs that there were traps along Snug Harbor Road the search for his two lead dogs would have been conducted differently and Natalie may not have lost her leg.
“I am not against trapping, I have furs, and I respect the lifestyle,” Bear said as he looked at Natalie. “If she can be the spokesperson and help to make a change then some good has come from it. I’m more interested in positive changes than prosecuting or accusing anyone.”