Editor's note: This story has been updated to include additional comments.
Cooper Landing has a long history as a trapping area — besides mining, it was one of the reasons people settled there in the first place. But in recent years, it’s also become a major recreation destination. Trails verge off into the mountains all around the town, and hikers, runners, skiers and bikers like to hit the trails year-round. Many of them also love to bring their dogs along.
Trappers and dog owners have been butting heads in Cooper Landing for years. Now a group of dog owners have put together a proposal for the Federal Subsistence Board that would create a 1,000-foot mandatory setback for traps on a handful of the most popular campgrounds and trails in the area.
"The campsites are federally managed, and they are used a lot for primarily cross country skiing in the winter, and people like to go and ski and let their dog run along," said Lorraine Temple, a Cooper Landing resident who’s been coordinating the effort on the proposal. She said the group, calling itself the Cooper Landing Safe Trails Committee, has been working hard on the proposal and has high hopes of it passing.
"And the Russian River Campground is a very popular ski area," she said. "Traps are allowed all throughout that area. Now, people who want to recreate and let their dogs run along, they catch a scent of a trap close to the trail — you can see the interaction and potential of devastating harm that can happen."
The Safe Trails Committee's proposal would ban placing traps within 1,000 feet of Crescent Creek Trail, Lower Russian Lakes trail up to Barber Cabin, the first 1.5 miles of the Juneau Bench Trail, the Devil’s Creek ski loop and the campgrounds at Quartz Creek, Crescent Creek, Russian River and Cooper Creek. Temple says the group included those areas because they are some of the most popular ones on federal lands; they intend to request a similar restriction from the state Board of Game for non-federal lands, such as Snug Harbor Road, which has been the site of many conflicts between trappers and dog owners.
The group says it also surveyed Cooper Landing residents and received overwhelming support for setbacks of some kind. The risk of having dogs or children caught in traps placed near trails is stressful for residents during trapping season, Temple said.
"As Cooper Landing evolves and diversifies, and becomes more of a year-round destination, the worst thing in the world would be for people to be reluctant to come down here because they hear horror stories of not being able to be safe with their children running around or their dogs because of traps close to trails," Temple said.
Trappers and advocates have responded to the conflict over the years by saying that dog owners should keep their pets on leashes and that traps help control the populations of animals like beavers. Temple said her group tried to work with the trappers on a compromise but ultimately didn’t get far and put forward the proposal to the Federal Subsistence Board on their own.
Tom Lessard, who has worked with area trappers, said he reached out to some of the dog owners in winter 2019 with dog-safe trapping methods.
"That advice was ignored and now they are trying to restrict all trapping, which is just silly because any reasonable person would agree, for example, that a mouse trap is OK," he said. " But the mouse trap is just an example of why blanket trapping restrictions are extreme. I believe that those driving these restrictions real interest is to eliminate trapping any where and any way they can."
People being caught in traps is rare, he said, so the main conflict is over loose dogs. Areas like the Russian River Campground and other developed campgrounds do have mandatory leash laws, and dog owners who let them run loose are ignoring the regulations, he said.
He says he disagrees with the methods and results of the survey the group conducted and noted that the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which begins west of Cooper Landing near the entrace to Skilak Lake Loop Road, has 1-mile trapping setbacks while firearm discharge is restricted to a quarter mile. The Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area is also closed to trapping under refuge regulations. He called for cooperation on opening up the refuge to more trapping opportunities.
"It's time for the Refuge to get in line with (the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act), ease up on the trapping restrictions and help take some pressure off Cooper Landing. It would be great if the local trapping opponents would get on board and help get trapping loosened up a bit up on the Refuge in exchange for some pull back in Cooper Landing."
This issue has come up multiple times over the decades, most recently in 2014, when a local resident started an online petition that garnered hundreds of signatures and sparked a conversation at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. Game issues are largely handled by the Alaska Board of Game, but the Federal Subsistence Board manages subsistence hunting, trapping and fishing on federal lands in Alaska.
The board has a worksession scheduled on August 5-6 to discuss issues for its upcoming meeting next spring. The spring meeting is scheduled for April, when the board can take public testimony as well.
Written comments are due on the proposals by July 19, and can be submitted by email, mail, or fax. For more information about how to comment, go to doi.gov/subsistence/board.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.