At the end of January, the Alaska Board of Game will consider Proposal 199, which would require 50-yard trap setbacks from specific, maintained multi-use trails in the Mat-Su area.
Reasonable trap setbacks from multi-use trails, such as those recommended in Proposal 199, represent a compromise that honors all Alaskans. Trapping is an emotional issue, and the political climate makes it easy for controversial topics to be pulled to extreme poles. I think it’s important, now more than ever, to remember that Alaska is large enough to support a compromise that respects multiple user groups.
In Alaska, trappers have virtually free reign to set their traps anywhere on state lands. The majority of Alaska’s trappers take this responsibility seriously and work hard to reduce accidental capture of pets and other non-target animals, especially in urban areas. But, the actions of a few less experienced or negligent trappers have huge implications on other recreationalists.
The effort to establish trap setbacks in the Mat Su started in 2017, after 11 dogs had been caught in traps on Mat Su-area trails. Over 3,500 MSB residents petitioned the Matanuska-Susitna Borough (MSB) Assembly to issue protections from traps placed next to trails and schools. The MSB Assembly approved trapping restrictions on six borough-managed trails and on school grounds, but could not issue restrictions for state-managed trails because that authority rests with the state’s Board of Game.
Each year there are reports of pets in the Mat-Su area being ensnared in legally set traps near or on state-managed trails. For example, during the 2020-21 trapping season alone, verified public reports of trap encounters included:
- A dog killed in a baited conibear trap 30 feet from the Crooked Creek Trail.
- A dog nearly killed in a conibear trap placed near the parking lot of the Nelchina-Knik trailhead.
- A motocross rider pulled off his motorbike by a snare in Jim Creek Recreation Area.
- A dog caught in a snare at Iditarod headquarters on Knik Goose Bay Road.
- A dog caught in a snare in Western Matanuska Range Trail system.
- A dog caught in a snare in Meadow Lakes.
- A dog caught in a trap near Big Lake Airport.
Proposal 199, which requires 50-yard trap setbacks from specific Mat Su-area trails, comes at a critical time. The MSB has grown by over 20% in the last 10 years, and tens of thousands of people in the MSB and surrounding areas enjoy multi-use trails during the trapping season. As summarized by the MSB Trails Information Page, “Demands for quality trails increase every year and are expected to continue as visitors and residents get outside and enjoy the MSB’s natural beauty and wild country in ever-increasing numbers.”
Which trails would be protected by setbacks if Proposal 199 passes? Trail selection was an intentional process designed to identify true multi-use trails. First, we referenced the 2016 Matanuska-Susitna Borough Recreational Trails Plan. This comprehensive trails plan includes over a dozen adopted community trail plans under one umbrella, including those of: Big Lake, Chase, Chickaloon, Glacier View, South Knik River, Knik-Fairview, Lake Louise, Lazy Mountain, Meadow Lakes, Point MacKenzie, Sheep Mountain, Susitna, Sutton, Talkeetna, and Willow. Thousands of trails were identified in the MSB Recreational Trails Plan, but only 253 trails are considered “Regionally Significant”. Regionally Significant trails are defined as: “existing or proposed trails requiring borough action that are likely to attract recreationalists due to the quality of the recreational opportunities the trail provides.” From that list of 253 Regionally Significant Trails, we further narrowed trails for setbacks to those that:
- are currently used (we omitted proposed trails and connectors),
- have documented year-round use from multiple user groups, and
- are regularly maintained for multi-use.
We do not seek to put a setback on every trail in the Mat-Su area, only the trails that are most utilized and maintained for multi-use, such as the Iditarod trail, Iron Dog connectors, Nancy Lakes trail, and the Ski Hill and Su Valley ski trails. For a full list of trails, see Proposal 199. For maps of proposed trails, click here.
Why 50-yard setbacks? Because fifty yards is the minimum distance for trap setbacks currently used in Alaska. In 2019, the Municipality of Anchorage passed an ordinance for 50-yard no-trap setbacks from designated trails within the municipality. In the Juneau area, designated trails have even larger setbacks of ¼ mile. In sum, the 50 yard distance is the minimum setback that has worked successfully in other parts of the state.
Some people may interpret this proposal as an affront to trapping, but it’s important to note that this proposal asks for very little. Trapping seasons are open as early as September and can go through May. That’s at least half the year. Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) states that Alaskans should, “assume all maintained winter trails are traplines unless otherwise marked.” Additionally, ADF&G recommends that all recreationalists using trails with their dogs carry with them a cumbersome “trap removal tool kit,” and states that “if you encounter traps or snares, immediately leash your pet and leave the area.”
According to the State, there are only 2,500-3,500 trappers in all of Alaska, with just a fraction of those trappers trapping in the Mat Su. Respecting the rights of the minority is a key principle of democracy, and we can still honor the rights of a small population of urban trappers to trap in these areas, but should that population have unrestricted access to trap on multi-use trails while everyone else is instructed to “leave the area”?
It should be noted that, in 2016, the Board of Game approved statewide Proposal 78, which removed all requirements for identification tags on traps and snares, so there is no regulation requiring that trap lines be marked. There is also no state regulation on how often trappers must check their traps. What’s more, if you encounter a trap on or next to a trail while you’re recreating, it is against state law (AS.16.05.790) to move or tamper with the trap. Since it’s legal to set traps and snares directly on these trails, you have to simply live with it. If you remove your pet from a snare, the law requires that you leave the snare in place after you remove your pet–even if the snare is placed in a parking area or on a trail.
In short, the status quo is that one small user group can legally place weapons in multi-use areas, and they’re limited only by the non-binding terms of the Alaska Trappers Code of Ethics. If an individual trapper does not follow these voluntary recommendations, their actions can cause serious harm. What other user group is only regulated by a suggested Code of Ethics?
I think most Alaskans agree that trappers don’t need to trap right on or next to designated, maintained multi-use trails. Since most trappers behave ethically and don’t place traps in multi-use corridors already, this proposal will not burden ethical trappers at all. This proposal only limits those who set “problem” traps.
To the concerns that this proposal poses an undue burden for trappers: the average backpacking speed is 2 miles per hour (mph). Assuming trappers are moving between 1-2 mph in snow, this distance would take between one to two minutes to walk from the trail. Many trappers use snowmachines, which could cover a 50-yard setback in a fraction of a minute. And that’s assuming a trapper wanted to trap 50 yards from a multi-use trail. Let’s remember that the rest of the backcountry is essentially completely open to trapping. By selecting only the most utilized and popular trails for this proposal, primitive or trapper-maintained trails would not be restricted by setbacks. Again, this proposal only prohibits traps on or next to trails where people are running dog teams, skiing, hiking, or hunting – are those areas where we want unmarked trailside traps? I respect the rights of trappers to utilize multi-use trails, but allowing traps on or right next to trails that are maintained for multi-use recreation is not reasonable.
To the questions about the responsibility of dog owners, I think we can all agree that most of us live in Alaska for unparalleled access to open spaces. This is not California, and we don’t want it to be. Alaskans ski, hunt, hike, and run sleds with our dogs. Physical leashes are not required on many trails, and I don’t believe the majority of Alaskans would like all open spaces to require leashes. Voice and sight control is ethically important for the experience of other trail users and wildlife, and critically important to the safety of pets. This proposal would not protect dogs who venture far from their owners or who are uncontrolled, but it would keep traps far enough away that trained, off leash dogs would not be lured by baited “instant-kill” traps like conibears. Alaskans make compromises between user groups all the time: some ski trails don’t allow dogs, others do; some trails have leash laws and others do not; some areas are closed to motorized access or bikes while others cater to those users. There’s more than enough space for all users in the Mat-Su- all we ask is that a small portion of some of the trails in that open space be free of traps so that all users have places to recreate safely.
If you would like to see changes in trapping regulations, please contact the Board of Game, preferably before the comment period closes on January 7th. You can write to the Board of Game through their comment portal. You can learn more about the proposal and how to comment on the Alaska Wildlife Alliance website.
Nicole Schmitt is the Executive Director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, whose organization submitted Proposal 199 to the Board of Game.