In John Forrest’s eyes, anti-trappers have been springing his traps, stealing his catch, destroying his equipment and generally hindering his livelihood for years. The offenders have always remained faceless, and they’ve always gotten away with it.
“It’s an ongoing issue,” Forrest said of such incidents from the witness stand Monday in Juneau District Court.
Last winter, that changed. Forrest finally found out, through “a number of coincidences” as his attorney put it, who had sprung several of his traps on Davies Creek trail in December 2014: Kathleen K. Turley, whom he sued last month seeking $5,000 worth of damages.
Except Turley — who rescued an eagle ensnared in one of Forrest’s traps that day — isn’t who Forrest thinks she is, her attorney Nicholas Polasky argued before Judge Thomas Nave during a small claims trial Monday. Polasky described his client as a born-and-raised Alaskan who hunts grouse, deer and brown bear, has animal skins and hides on the walls of her house, and raises meat rabbits to butcher and eat.
“She’s a hunter,” Polasky said in opening statements. “She’s a person who’s not against trapping and is not the type of person that we think Mr. Forrest probably thinks that she is.”
During testimony Monday, which will conclude in a Thursday hearing, Turley fully admitted to springing two of Forrest’s traps on Dec. 24 and another on the 27th.
The reason? There was a bald eagle, still alive, in one of the traps on Dec. 24. As she worked for about an hour freeing the bird from the twisted metal chains and leg clamps, she tied up her dogs to a nearby bush and set off a marten box trap to keep them from getting in the same sort of trouble.
The second trap she released, she said, was as she hiked back down the trail that evening with the injured eagle in her backpack. She said she stuck a stick in a trap on the trail, again, to prevent her dogs from sniffing it and getting their noses clamped.
“That was not my intent,” she said on direct examination from Polasky, who asked if she was purposefully trying to hinder Forrest’s trapping. “My intent was to keep the dogs out of the trap.”
The third time was on Dec. 27 as she was leading a group of 10 Juneau Alpine Club hikers on the trail. It was getting dark and someone had gotten separated from the group earlier in the hike, she said. There was a trap close to the trail and she was nervous someone behind her wouldn’t see it. She said she released it “to make sure no one was injured.”
Zane Wilson, Forrest’s attorney, emphasized that the lawsuit is not about any of the traps that Turner sprung in her efforts to save the bald eagle on Dec. 24, which was later euthanized. He said it was about the other three traps Turley described.
“Just to make it perfectly clear, we’re not asking for anything with Ms. Turley (related to the eagle),” he said to Judge Nave. “It’s not up to Ms. Turley to decide where Mr. Forrest traps. That’s up to Mr. Forrest and the State of Alaska. Ms. Turley needs to be told that what she did was wrong, and she needs to have some consequences for her actions. That is why we are before the court today.”
Turley said she usually hikes past traps in the woods on her hikes, and she only sprung these traps because she deemed them a hazard to dogs and people. Unlike major hiking trails in Juneau, there aren’t any requirements for trappers on Davies Creek to keep traps a certain distance off the trail.
Polasky told the judge, who will issue a decision in the case on Thursday, that the statute in question requires the plaintiff to prove that Turley had the specific intent to obstruct or hinder Forrest’s traps. Turley had no such intent, her attorney said, saying his client intended “to make sure the traps don’t hurt her dog, or have to deal with another situation like the eagle.”
She’s not “a person who is out to get in the way of trapping at all,” Polasky stressed.
Some 20 people packed the courthouse Monday to lend Turley support. Polasky said she is being held up as a champion of the anti-trapping movement, which is a role she doesn’t want.
“I’m not opposed to trapping,” she said on the witness stand Monday.
Turley testified she actually kept the incident with the eagle from the public eye because she thought it would be “bad PR” for trappers. It was kept under wraps until early January — when Alaska Wildlife Troopers cited her for hindering lawful trapping, a misdemeanor criminal offense. Like Forrest and his attorney in this lawsuit, Troopers said the citation did not relate to the traps she sprang while releasing the eagle.
In response to the citation, Turner posted a picture of the eagle on a popular Juneau Facebook page. The picture shows the eagle lying on the ground, both its legs ensnared. It stared straight at the camera.
Almost instantly, community members rallied by her side, and the case against her was dropped. Juneau District Attorney James Scott dismissed the case at her January arraignment.
“When she’s hiking and she comes across an eagle in a snare, I encourage her to rescue that eagle again, and I will screen that case out as well,” Scott added at the time.
Sue Walker, one of Turley’s supporters, called the case “completely inappropriate.”
“I believe the fact that she sprung the traps while carrying the injured eagle, … trying to keep her other dogs out of the trap is entirely reasonable.”
Mike Weber, a Palmer resident and part of the group Alaska Safe Trails, used the photo of the trapped eagle in half-page advertisement in the Juneau Empire on Sunday. “How does the law view this?” the ad reads. “If you’re a trapper, you can ‘incidentally’ kill as many of these as land in your trap. By its inaction, USFWS in Alaska gives its implicit approval. However, the Bald Eagle Protection Act does not exempt ‘incidental’ kill. If you’re anyone else, a feather could cost you $5,000. Selective enforcement IS discrimination.”
Alaska Wildlife Troopers in Juneau said previously that Forrest would not be in trouble for killing the eagle.
“Not by us, no,” Trooper Aaron Frenzel said in a January interview, adding that the traps were set lawfully. “It’s an incidental catch.”
When Forrest’s attorney asked what he thought of the photograph while on the witness stand Monday, Forrest responded, “I thought it was a great photograph, and if I hadn’t personally caught the eagle, I’d say the guy knew what he was doing. The eagle had a trap on both feet.”
That statement caused everyone in the courtroom to pause, and Forrest quickly continued, “But, that is — if there’s an ugly side to trapping, that’s what it is. That particular photo. But it’s no different than going fishing, and bringing a fish up … and throwing it back in that ain’t going to make it. It’s just the way it is.”
Forrest said it takes a lot of time and effort to trap for a living. He clears the trail at the beginning of trapping season, obtains the bait and sets the traps. It takes five to eight hours to check his trap line once a week. He has 20 traps in a three-mile line on Davies Creek trail. On average, he traps a marten, a mink, a couple beavers and maybe a wolverine each week.
“You put all this time and effort into something, and somebody comes along and fools around with it,” he said, describing his frustration. “It’s kind of like going out and setting … crab pots and going out a week later and two pots are gone, and the crabs have been taken out of the rest. It’s like what the heck am I doing out here? It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
He added, “I want her to realize she did something wrong that was against the law, and … if the prosecutor had done his job on the first go-around, we wouldn’t be here wasting our time and more money. What she did was wrong.”