KASILOF, Alaska - Among Pat Murray's two house dogs, Willie was the youthful runner, a Great Dane-border collie mix who gleefully bounded into the trees by the road during his twice-daily runs parallel to Murray's rolling Ford king-cab truck.
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Sally is the older and, perhaps, wiser husky who stuck to the road, which may explain why she's still alive.
Willie ran headlong into a trapper's cable snare just off unpopulated Silver Fox Drive last month, cinching the noose into a death grip that, Murray thinks and hopes, killed him before he gulped another breath. Sally helped find him the next day, about a dozen paces off the snowy gravel road. Shaken and angry at first, Murray now hopes the playful 4-year-old's death won't be in vain.
"I want the trapping community to police themselves. And if that can't happen, we need setback laws, trap IDs and signage," Murray said Thursday, when he and Sally finally returned to Silver Fox for a run and a visit to Willie's death site. The site is visible from the road by the iron cross and the image of the corpse on a flier that Murray tacked to a spruce like a roadside shrine for a traffic accident's victim.
Parts of Alaska are mini-minefields of neck snares and leg-hold traps. Trapping groups estimate 1,000 trappers supplem ent their incomes with fur in Alaska, and in recent years, the state says, their collective efforts have brought in close to $2 million. The Last Frontier is also a dog's paradise, which is why trappers say there's bound to be some conflict.
"It comes up every year," said Randy Zarnke, the Fairbanks-based president of the Alaska Trappers Association. "Not necessarily in the same community every year, but it does happen."
Often the snared dog is from a musher's sled team, well away from roads.
"It's a bad situation for everyone: the dog, the musher, the trapper," Zarnke said. So the association has produced a video about sharing trails. It calls for trappers to post signs notifying passers-by of traps and for communication between dog owners and trappers so they can effectively isolate their zones of operation.
Zarnke is troubled by Murray's suggestion of setbacks, though.
"If people want to push us back 10 feet from a trail, and that's accepted, then next year there might be a call for that to be 20 feet, and then 50 feet," he said. "You could get to the point where it's difficult to be a trapper."
He noted that Alaska's vast territory contains hugely different communities, and that what's appropriate in a large town might not work in Bush villages where residents hunt and trap for food near home.
On the state's western edge, another dog snaring this winter may bring local action. Nome's brushy outskirts are open to trapping, but are also popular with mushers running dog teams. In November, a musher was sledding down a creekside trail through some willows when a loose dog running beside her team was snared by the leg. The musher freed that dog safely, and reported it to Nome police.
Officer Bryan Weyauvanna said he went to the scene and removed two snares and a leg-hold trap from the area. He said Friday that the trail was popular with mushers and he considered the traps a hazard. But his efforts won him a warning from Alaska State Troopers, who are authorized to cite anyone who removes legally placed traps or otherwise harasses trappers.
Now it's up to the Nome City Council to decide whether trapping should be allowed in city limits, he said.
Murray was stunned to find that trapping is legal next to a road. After he found Willie stiff and strangled, he asked for help from the troopers and learned there's no state law against trapping by a road. Then he called Kenai Peninsula Borough code enforcement officer Warren Finley, who drove down from Soldotna to measure the distance from the center of the road to the snare. It taped out at 55 feet, while the borough's right of way only extends 30 feet from a road's center.