No one wants to see animals suffer, and few want to see them caught in traps. But trapping in the Last Frontier has a long and storied history that, for time immemorial, has served as a critical way of life for many.
Today, we’re not here to dispute trapping in Alaska. In fact, we see it as a vital source of income for some and an outdoor activity akin to hunting and fishing.
The recent court proceedings between Juneau trapper John Forrest and resident Kathleen Turley brought the spotlight brightly back on the issue of user conflicts. Forrest was suing Turley for $5,000 in damages after she sprung some of his traps last year and freed an incidental catch — a bald eagle — after it became ensnared along his trapline.
User conflicts commonly arise when recreational trail users take their dogs off-leash into the backcountry during trapping season; the same scents that lure in marten, wolf, ermine and coyote, for example, will lure in dogs. Conflicts can also arise when traps are set too close to trails, or when the trapping regulations are not followed.
While there may not be a silver bullet that will avoid all potential conflicts, we do think there’s room for more communication. For instance, after speaking with a few local trappers, the Empire learned that some openly mark the beginning of their traplines with signage. Those trappers understand the risks associated with doing so, but they feel the benefit of passersby knowing there’s a trapline set in the area suits both parties — hikers will likely steer clear and the trapper doesn’t get their traps sprung.
Yes, there’s a risk of intentional tampering, but that’s illegal and violators will be fined. We support the idea of a laminated notice at the beginning of a trail’s entrance announcing the existence of legal traps nearby. Those who do frequent the backcountry in winter would benefit from perusing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s online section on trapping. There, informational resources outline everything from how to spot signs of a trapline to how to free a pet that has become ensnared. Annually, there’s even an informational outreach event organized by ADFG, which aims to get key information to all the players. Past events have proved effective; trappers and recreational users who were once divided leave with a broader understanding and heightened level of respect for the “other side.”
This recent conflict between Forrest and Turley is unfortunate, and neither side stood much to gain. Turley had public sympathy on her side after images of the ensnared eagle were published online and in this newspaper. Many viewed her as a victim/hero from the start. Forrest was obviously frustrated by a history of his traps being set off by others and was looking to make a point by taking legal action against the one person he could prove sprung his traps.
Friday’s court decision was more of a moral victory, if even that, for Forrest, who won the lawsuit but won’t get a penny of compensation from Turley. If anything, local trappers will now have to fight against a tarnished reputation in the court of public opinion.
Do we believe people should be comfortable walking their dog — on or off a leash — in the backcountry? Yes. Do we support lawful and ethical trapping? Yes.
We also believe that just like the responsible deer hunter who wears hunter orange, there’s more the trapping community can do to announce their presence to others.
There’s not a silver bullet, but the answer does lie somewhere in between. There is a silver lining to the lawsuit, however, in that residents are now talking about this issue. The end goal should be ensuring that hikers, pets and trappers can coexist with neither group causing harm, physical or financial, to the other.