Last spring, when the Alaska Board of Game approved a controversial new wolverine trapping season for Chugach State Park, Anchorage area biologist Rick Sinnott -- advising against it -- warned that wolverines in the park were few and dogs were many.
In fact, a 1995 aerial survey had determined that there were as few as 11 wolverines in all 1,900 square miles of Game Management Unit 14C -- an area as large as the state of Delaware -- which encompasses the park as well as the sprawling backcountry to the east.
Opening the park to wolverine trapping each winter could endanger that population -- while almost certainly endangering pets, Sinnott said then.
"There are going to be all these baits out there with these killer traps on them, and they're going to kill dogs -- it's almost inevitable."
Now that the first winter wolverine trapping season has just concluded (trappers had until the end of February to report their harvest to the state), how did that first season go?
In all of 14C, only two wolverines were caught by trappers, Sinnott reported Friday. At the same time, six dogs were caught by traps.
Four of them were snared outside the park in incidents involving leg-hold traps (usually intended for wolves), and none of those dogs were fatally injured, Sinnott said. Though one broke off its canine teeth trying to chew its way out of the trap.
The two dogs that ran into traps inside the park, however, were less fortunate. Both were caught in legally set Conibears intended for wolverines not far off well-traveled trails.
One, a 3-year-old pitbull-Lab mix that belonged to Anchorage resident Holly Grant, was crushed to death on Jan. 17 near Indian Trail off Turnagain Arm in an incident that was reported in the paper at the end of the month.
The other, which occurred only three days later off Bird Creek trail -- ensnaring Midnight, a 6-year-old Lab owned by Anchorage resident Janice Troyer -- could easily have ended the same way, save an extraordinary effort by Troyer, a 50-year-old lifelong Alaskan.
She'd been skiing with three friends up Bird Creek Trail that Sunday. They were about three or four miles from the trail head, having veered up Penguin Creek Trail to the right.
"I was really trying to watch my dog because we'd seen the 'trapping' sign (at the trail head)," Troyer said. "Then he perked up and darted into the trees. As soon as he disappeared, I heard a really loud 'yelp.' I knew immediately it was serious, and he was probably in a trap."
Pulling off her skis, she dashed about 20 yards off the trail and found him. His neck was caught between the two bars of a Conibear and he was thrashing and squealing.
Troyer screamed to her friends for help. All three were spread out down the trail. Meanwhile, she tried as hard as she could to pull the bars apart. They wouldn't budge. Just trying to pull them, however, seemed to relieve some pressure from Midnight's neck.
"He was gasping for air," she said. "I just kept looking at his eyes making sure he was still alive."
It took about five minutes for her first friend, Madeleine Grant -- who happens to be a doctor -- to reach them, Troyer said. The two women tried together to pull the bars apart, but had no more luck than before.
Then they noticed the springs on the side. Madeleine tried to unscrew them with a Leatherman tool, but couldn't.
"There was no way we could open it," Troyer said. So she kept pulling on the bars -- waiting for her other two friends to show up -- as Midnight struggled to breathe. About 15 minutes after the first yelp, Shelly Lipman and Pam Robinson skied into view.
There is a trick to opening a 330 Conibear wolverine trap -- by levering the springs open with a leash -- Troyer later learned, but none of them knew that then, and it wasn't intuitive.
Instead, two of them tried to push as hard as they could on the springs, while a third continued to pull at the bars, and the fourth -- Troyer -- grabbed Midnight by the head and gently tried to tug him out.
Straining as hard as they could, the bars separated ever so slightly, and Troyer pulled Midnight free. In a few minutes he was breathing normally again.
Troyer says she has her friends to thank for saving Midnight's life.
"Had I been by myself, my dog would be dead," she said. "There is no way I would have been able to open that trap by myself."
Partly she's at fault, Troyer said. She'd seen the sign at the parking lot -- where she kept her dog leashed -- but assumed "in my naivete" that the state wouldn't allow traps to be set so close to trails heavily used by backcountry skiers and their pets.
Now, officials are rethinking where traps can be legally set. In January when Grant's and Troyer's dogs were caught, no state regulation stipulated how far off park trails traps need to be placed. State parks director Chris Degernes recently asked the Board of Game to require a 100-yard setback.
Meeting in Fairbanks this week, board members agreed to a 50-yard setback and no traps within a quarter-mile of trail heads and highways, according to Cathy Harms, a Fish and Game spokesperson in Fairbanks. The board also voted to require trappers to register and mark their traps with an identifying tag.
Troyer, however, doesn't plan to use the Bird Creek trail anymore -- just to be safe. She's taken another precaution as well.
Ten days after her dog's close call, reading in the newspaper about the Indian Trail incident that killed the pitbull-Lab, Troyer organized a community meeting at the Russian Jack Chalet and invited some trappers to show her and others how to open a 330 Conibear by yourself. Four trappers showed up and did so, Troyer said. "Now I always carry a leash."
Find George Bryson online at adn.com/contact/gbryson or call 257-4318.
Dogs caught in animal traps
Knik River Road, Dec. 5, 2007
Anonymous complaint of two dogs caught in traps on trails near Mile 5 and Mile 9 of the Knik River Road. Both dogs were injured, but the extent and the types of traps are not known.
Chugiak, mid-January 2008
A woman walking her dog along the railroad tracks south of Powder Ridge Subdivision and the Beach Lake ski trails had her dog caught in a leg-hold trap while it investigated a pile of railroad ties. The dog was injured but not killed.
Indian Valley, Jan. 17, 2008
Holly Grant's chocolate Lab/pit bull mix was caught in a 330 Conibear during a walk on the Powerline Trail, about a quarter mile from the Upper Indian Creek trail head in Chugach State Park. The trap was baited with a large chunk of meat and set about 10 feet off the trail. Her dog died.
Penguin Creek Trail, Jan. 20, 2008
Janice Troyer's retriever was caught in a 330 Conibear about 20-30 yards off the trail. The trap was baited with salmon filets. After about 20 minutes, Troyer and her friends figured out the spring mechanism and released the dog, which was uninjured.
Seward Highway, Jan. 27, 2008
Steve and Abby Rideout were hiking with a friend's husky in Chugach National Forest near Mile 86 of the Seward Highway. They parked at the large national forest sign south of Girdwood. The dog ran ahead and was caught in a leg-hold trap. They managed to release the dog, whose leg was injured but not broken. The dog broke several teeth biting at the trap.
Source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game