Wolf Song of Alaska News

No Bag Limit on Trapping Ideas

Citizens can propose nearly anything and have their notions taken seriously

George Bryson / Anchorage Daily News / April 29, 2007


Lost in all the ruckus over the Alaska Board of Game's decisions on wolves, bears and wolverines last month was this: its approval of a Birchwood area beaver trapping season sought by a 14-year-old Birchwood boy. This despite strong opposition from state biologists, who noted that there are hardly any beavers there and almost no public land to trap them on.

How that season came to be says something about how impressed the board members were by the boy -- Sandie Gilliland, who began trapping in Alaska when he was 9 and was recently voted Southcentral Alaska's Junior Trapper of the Year.

But it also says something about the citizen-driven nature of wildlife management in Alaska -- its pluses and minuses -- wherein almost anyone can propose almost anything and have their ideas taken seriously.

Because Sandie was hardly alone last month. When the seven-member game board convened in Anchorage for its 11-day "Spring Meeting" marathon in early March, there were more than 200 proposals on the table for Southcentral and Southwestern Alaska, among them ideas great and small.

They ranged from a plan to eliminate up to 1,400 black bears northwest of Cook Inlet by allowing Alaskans to shoot the bears from planes (it passed) to another that would prohibit people from feeding bread crumbs to birds in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. (It passed too.)

About one-fifth of the proposals (including the black bear and bread crumb measures) were advanced by various regional wildlife managers within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But nearly all the rest came either from citizen advisory groups or individual citizens.

Like the idea Anchorage attorney Kneeland Taylor had to prohibit the use of large Conibears and other lethal animal traps within 50 yards of publicly maintained hiking trails and parking areas in the Seward, Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna areas to reduce the danger to pets. It failed.

Or the proposal municipal employee Alex Gimarc had to allow hunters to shoot 30 to 50 brown bears in Chugach State Park and the backcountry to the east (where area biologists estimate a total population of only about 60 brown bears) in a nearly year-round hunt. Instead, the Game Board approved a far more modest department-sponsored spring hunt to cull one to three brown bears a year.

Still, everyone was offered a hearing, which is all Sandie Gilliland was hoping for that first Saturday night. He finally took the podium after 9 p.m. at the conclusion of a grueling session in which the Game Board listened to more than 12 hours of public testimony.

"He's been sitting there all day, staying awake for this," board chairman Cliff Judkins said, smiling, welcoming the boy to the stand.

"Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight," Sandie said. "I appreciate that."

Then, in less than three minutes, speaking softly but confidently, Sandie summed up his case for why the state should create a beaver trapping season in his own backyard.

For the past four years in the Birchwood game management corridor, he's watched beavers overrun their sparse habitat, leaving old ponds with almost no deciduous trees remaining, Sandie said. And culling some of the beavers -- through the creation of a winter trapping season -- would reduce some of that pressure on the environment as well as the fighting between competing beaver colonies.

"The beaver population will benefit because there will be less competition for food and habitat," he said. "If nothing is done, this problem will spread to other areas, leaving the landscape scarred."

But he also advised the board to place a special restriction on Birchwood beaver trapping that would require participants to completely submerge their traps beneath the ice to prevent any accidents with pets.

"Well, Sandie, I don't have a question," game board member Ted Spraker said after he finished. "I'm just going to tell you I'm very impressed. It looks like you put a lot of thought into it. You did a good job."

"I feel the same way," board chairman Cliff Judkins said. "Your mom ought to be proud of you."

One week later, however, when the proposal finally came up for board action with Sandie absent, the chances for his beaver season appeared bleak as area biologists Jesse Coltrane and Rick Sinnott ticked off the strikes against it.

For one thing, there's not much public property in Birchwood, Coltrane said. Beyond Beach Lake Park, most of the places where beavers might be found are on land privately owned by Eklutna Inc., the local Native corporation. And an Eklutna spokesman told the department that they don't want anyone but shareholders on their property.

"We believe that opening a beaver trapping season (there) would result in numerous trespass issues and conflict with property owners," Coltrane said.

In addition, Sinnott found very few beavers when he explored Birchwood the previous week. There were old lodges near the highway but they appeared abandoned, Sinnott said.

"I'd be hard-pressed to say there's more than 15 (beavers)," he said.

"Have you ever met Sandie Gilliland?" board chairman Judkins asked Sinnott.

The boy had visited the department on several occasions and was known there as a very personable young man, he said.

"If the board takes my word against Sandie's -- and I'm not encouraged that you will -- what I would like to offer is a compromise," he said.

From time to time, beavers dam up culverts and citizens are allowed to eliminate them by obtaining a "depredation permit." When that happens in the future, Sinnott said, he would be happy to notify Sandie and let him trap the beaver.

"That sounds like a square deal to me," said board member Ted Spraker. "I can't see why we should support this (trapping season), because it flies in the face of all the good principles of management we have to adhere to."

The board batted it back and forth a minute longer -- some members expressing sympathy for Sandie -- then voted the proposal down 5-2. Only members Bob Bell and Ron Somerville supported it.

But that wasn't the end of the issue. When the members reconvened the next day, Spraker said he'd had a change of heart. He asked the board to reconsider Sandie's beaver trapping proposal, partly because he realized the area is already open to the trapping of other species, including wolverine.

That's true, state wildlife conservation director Matt Robus told the board. But it might be more logical to think about closing the small area that's open to wolverine, he said, than to open it to beaver trapping and "make a lot of people subject to trespass."

Spraker said he was confident that Sandie would be careful to ask a property owner's permission before he proceeded to set traps on their land.

(Indeed, that's what he always does, Sandie said later in a private interview. He's found private property owners other than Eklutna Inc. who say yes. He also knows about the abandoned beaver lodges that Sinnott mentioned. But at the northern end of the management unit, he said, there's plenty of beavers.)

"I don't think there is going to be a big issue there," Spraker said. "And if (Sandie) gets permission, he'll be able to trap. And if people want to trap beaver that destroy trees on their own property, they can do that. ... I see both sides of it, but I'm going to switch my vote."

Nearly everyone else did too. When the board voted again, the Birchwood beaver trapping season passed 5-2.

Daily News reporter George Bryson can be reached at gbryson@adn.com.

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