Right to access also comes with responsibilities

  • Saturday, October 17, 2015 3:38pm
  • Opinion

Trapping issues were in the news this week as a lawsuit in which a trapper sought damages from a woman for illegally springing his traps went to court.

The Juneau Empire reported that John Forrest filed the suit against Kathleen Turley, seeking $5,000 in damages. Turley, whose attorney described her as a hunter and not anti-trapping, admitted to springing three of Forrest’s traps — though she argued that her intent was not to hinder his trapping, but out of safety concerns. She sprung one that was in close proximity to another in which a bald eagle had been caught in order to prevent her dogs from being caught while she tried to free the eagle. She sprung another along the trail as she made her way back to the trail head with the injured eagle, again with the safety of her dogs in mind. She sprung a third trap three days later, while leading a group of hikers. It had gotten dark, the group was spread out, and she worried that a hiker might not see the trap.

The judge in the case ruled that Turley was justified in springing the trap while she freed the eagle, but was liable for springing the other legally set traps, suggesting that other options were available, such as leashing dogs or standing by the trap to direct hikers around it. However, he also found that Forrest failed to show lost income from the traps that were sprung, and Turley was not ordered to pay any damages.

Forrest’s frustration is easy to understand as many trappers, including those here on the Kenai Peninsula, feel the practice is under assault. In fact, the Board of Game heard proposals last winter from the Cooper Landing-based Committee for Safe Public Lands and Trails that would have eliminated trapping entirely in certain areas around Seward, Moose Pass and Cooper Landing, and forced trappers to move at least 250 feet back from several trails in the area.

While the game board rejected the proposals, the issue is not going to go away. Trapping has a long history on the Kenai Peninsula, and many people will be setting traps soon — the trapping season on the peninsula runs from Nov. 10 through March 31.

However, more and more people are accessing wilderness areas in the winter, and many recreationists bring their dogs with them. As use increases, so does the potential for conflict between user groups.

Those conflicts are not likely to be eliminated without eliminating one of the user groups — which is not something we wish to see.

However, the potential for conflict can be mitigated with an open dialogue. Last winter, the Committee for Safe Public Lands and Trails approached the Alaska Trappers Association to begin a dialogue to seek a non-regulatory solution; representatives from the trappers association say they made a good faith effort by posting signs that caution both trappers and pet owners. We hope to see that dialogue re-started.

We encourage trappers to use an abundance of caution when operating in areas with high public use to minimize conflict. State regulations call for trappers to act responsibly, but don’t provide a specific definition, for example, of where it’s appropriate to set traps in relation to recreational trails or campgrounds. Signs such as those posted by the trappers association seem a reasonable step to alerting trail users of the presence of traps, and according to game board members, they have been used in conjunction with good communication between users to mitigate conflicts.

Likewise, we encourage dog owners to take responsibility for their pets’ safety when hiking in areas open to trapping. While there is no leash law on trails, Chugach National Forest posts recommendations on its website that dogs be under control or on a leash during trapping season. And pet owners should keep in mind that traps aren’t the only hazard to be found along peninsula trails.

Trapping is and will continue to be a hot-button issue. We hope those on both sides of the issue remember that the right to use of an area, whatever that use may be, also comes with the expectation that those rights are exercised responsibly.

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