KASILOF -- 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.
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.
"Our streetsides and subdivisions are for people and pets."
NEED BETTER COMMUNICATION
According to state and borough law, though, they're also for fur trappers unless otherwise posted. And on the Kenai Peninsula alone, one or two dogs from the borough's small towns and outlying forest subdivisions trip a trap each year, state game managers say.
Parts of Alaska are mini-minefields of neck snares and leg-hold traps. Trapping groups estimate 1,000 trappers supplement 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.
TRAPPING IS LEGAL NEAR A ROAD
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 safel, 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.
Had it been within the right of way, Finley said, the borough could have removed it because no exclusive uses are permitted there. As it was, no action was possible.
Finley said his trip to Kasilof was heartbreaking. With the grief still fresh, Murray showed him a scrapbook that noted Willie's birthday, Finley said.
"He almost came to tears," he said. "That was sort of a hard one to deal with. You can certainly have empathy."
Murray began posting his fliers around Kasilof, a wooded, rural community near the intersection of the Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road off Cook Inlet. He said he drew some criticism from trappers, but just wanted landowners to know they should post their property. Then he took to the airwaves, and the issue's airing on local talk radio became a sounding board for some Kenai Peninsula residents' bitterness about loose dogs that chase moose.
COMMON SENSE WOULD BE NICE
Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Jeff Selinger appeared on that call-in program and said he can understand callers' frustrations with loose dogs. He keeps busy in the spring with calls about dogs nipping at calving caribou and moose, he said. While the borough has no leash law, the state authorizes citizens and officials to kill dogs harassing wild animals. Selinger said he'll shoot if he catches a dog chasing wildlife in rural areas -- but not near homes along Kalifornsky Beach Road.
"If I see a dog trying to take down a moose or a moose calf or a caribou, I would take it down without hesitation," Selinger said.
Still, Selinger said he couldn't say whether Murray's dog was a nuisance, and he believes trappers should have the sense to stay away from roads even where trapping may be legal. "You're doing harm to trappers if you're doing it by a pull-off of a road where people are obviously running dogs," he said.
Murray said that was the case on Silver Fox -- his dogs' tracks were up and down the roadside snow. But few people use the road, which accesses a subdivision that has yet to be built, so Murray said he thinks a lazy trapper may have found it an attractive place to check snares by car. While legally split into a couple of dozen 2-, 3- and 4-acre lots, the area at present remains a quiet woods, which is why Murray let his dogs run up and down the road there.
The landowner, Jackie Swanson, said she was disturbed to hear of the snaring and has ordered no-trapping signs posted at the subdivision entry. She said years ago she also lost a dog to a trap and agrees with Murray that common sense should push trappers farther from other people and pets.
It's unfair to say dogs should be kept on a leash in rural areas when they're kept in check by their owners, she said.
"We don't live out in Kasilof to keep a dog on a leash," she said. "And I never had a problem with the dog running."
Thursday's return to Silver Fox was a solemn one for Murray, but Sally was ready to trot. As Murray piled into his pickup after visiting the trap scene, she stood behind it barking at the tires. Then he put it in gear and she leapt into the lead and jogged down the road before him.
"This was ideal: No people. No dogs," Murray said. "They loved it so much that they'd just sit and wait for the next pickup ride."
He said he is unsure whether to make the road a daily destination again.
Daily News reporter Brandon Loomis can be reached in the newspaper's Soldotna bureau at email@example.com or 907-260-5215, ext. 24.