Winter trapping season is coming up in Alaska.
But recreationists hoping for trapping restrictions along trails in Cooper Landing will have to wait. This week, members of the Federal Subsistence Board voted down a proposal to place setbacks alongside area trails — a plan advocates hoped could mitigate conflict between user groups.
“Cooper Landing, unfortunately, is in a tough situation, ’cause it’s not going to go away," said Ed Holsten, who represents Cooper Landing on the Southcentral Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council.
He agrees clashes between trappers and recreationists is a problem. And he said he knows people who’ve lost pets to traps near trails.
But he said the board cannot reasonably restrict federal subsistence users more than state users. And the board only has jurisdiction over subsistence uses on federal lands.
“It’s going to be tough for me to vote for this proposal, only because it, as written, it is more restrictive to the federal subsistence users," he said.
Cooper Landing has a long history of trapping. But as more hikers, skiers and others have flocked to the area, user groups have been at odds over whether and how to regulate where trappers can place traps.
Recreationists say traps close to public-use areas can hurt or kill dogs who’ve wandered off trail. It’s happened a number of times in the last several years, and some worry it will get worse as the area becomes more popular for cross-country skiers.
Trappers largely agree it’s a problem. But they say dog owners should be responsible for keeping their pets close, too.
This spring, a group of concerned Cooper Landing residents crafted a proposal that would ban placing traps within 1,000 feet of several popular area trails, like Crescent Creek Trail. The group said it based its proposal off a survey to community members, in which nearly 70 percent of respondents said they’d like to see setbacks extend a quarter mile on either side of trails and roadways. Eighteen percent of respondents said they’d like to see them 250 feet away.
Carol Damberg, who previously coordinated subsistence regulations for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told the subsistence board she supports the right to trap. But she said she also thinks it’s important to find compromise amid conflict between user groups.
“It's a request to make a really clear demarcation for user groups of what to expect when they're using a trail, a campground or a parking pullout in this specific area of the Kenai Peninsula," she said.
Andy McLaughlin represents Chenega Bay on the subsistence board. He said making federal regulations more restrictive than the state’s would violate the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA.
“Trapping in a campground certainly seems lame to me, ethically-wise. But like everybody’s saying, we’re not the ethics police or the safety police," he said. That’s not what this advisory council is about.”
Some board members suggested putting up signs or fostering agreements between local users.
But Nicki Schmitt, who called in to support the proposal, said it’s hard to broadly ensure compliance without regulations.
"A local agreement between local trappers and local people might be able to be reached," she said. "But how do you extend that to people who might be roadside trapping from Anchorage or other communities?”
There are multiple federal land managers in the Cooper Landing area. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is the only one with specific trapping restrictions, including setbacks and a ban on trapping along Skilak Lake Road.
Much of the area in Cooper Landing falls under the purview of the Forest Service, whose trapping regulations generally fall in line with those of the Alaska Board of Game.
Holsten, from the advisory council, said he thinks the group’s best bet is to bring a proposal to the state Board of Game. A second option, he said, would be to appeal directly to the Forest Service. But both bodies have rejected proposals in the past.
Schmitt said she knows previous proposals have fallen flat. But she said it’s not out of the question that a board might pass a proposal in the future, even though the Federal Subsistence Board did not.
“It’s not unexpected that they would have denied the proposal for fear of being more restrictive than the state," she said. "But next year, if all goes well with COVID plans and Board of Game meeting schedules, the Board of Game should be hearing proposals on this area in 2023.”
Proposals to the Board of Game aren’t due for another year, since the Southcentral was pushed back due to COVID-19.