The Anchorage Assembly didn’t get much media attention when it put the final touches on its Safe Trails Ordinance in late February, but many local dog lovers cheered the assembly’s unanimous vote to approve a list of more than 100 local trails that now receive new protections from the threat of traps.
While trapping has long been banned in the Anchorage Bowl and the city’s Hillside area—including substantial portions of Chugach State Park—it has been allowed in other parts of the municipality, including the Girdwood, Bird Creek, and Chugiak areas.
Approved in 2019, the safe trails law applies to all lands within the municipality. Among its key provisions: that traps may not be placed within 50 yards of “developed” trails (but not including informal offshoots); nor may traps be placed within a quarter-mile of homes, campgrounds, and trailheads. Developed trails are defined as trails marked by a trailhead, with parking area and signage.
To make it even clearer which trails are protected, safe-trail advocates put together a comprehensive list of municipal trails that are covered by the ordinance. While the initial act passed by a 9-2 margin, the list of trails passed unanimously in this year’s vote. (Maps that show the areas with trapping restrictions are available on the municipality’s website.)
Not surprisingly, some trapping groups and individual trappers have opposed the ordinance, arguing the safe trails law is unnecessary and that the assembly overstepped its authority.
East Anchorage Assemblyman Pete Petersen, who co-sponsored the ordinance and was its primary advocate on the board, considers it a “common-sense approach” to protect public safety and not an effort to regulate trapping.
In pushing for the change, Petersen noted that he’d heard tragic stories of dogs that had been caught in traps, some of them fatally injured. Having some sort of buffer zone in a populated area makes good sense, especially when it would have little impact on trappers and could save the lives of dogs and other pets.
While trappers grumbled, some wildlife activists celebrated the change. The Alaska Wildlife Alliance called it a “monumental” victory for all of those who’ve unsuccessfully sought to restrict trapping in residential areas. As the AWA explained in a recent newsletter, “The Alaska Board of Game has received proposals for years from municipalities across the state requesting that they close trapping or create buffers in municipal areas for the protection of citizens and pets. The Board of Game widely refuses to close municipal areas, despite pleas from councils in Mat-Su, Ketchikan and others. . . .
“This ordinance reflects a new opportunity for the public to truly be heard, where we have previously been dismissed by the Board of Game (BOG).”
Though many people worked hard to get the ordinance passed, none played a greater role than Anchorage attorney Kneeland “Kneely” Taylor, who has worked on Alaska trapping issues since the 1990s. In the early 2000s Taylor convinced the BOG to create a trapping subcommittee, composed of both trappers and non-trappers, to seek some compromise on trapping issues, but to his great disappointment nothing substantial came out of that.
Taylor was more successful several years later, when he and several other Anchorage residents (I among them) formed “Team Wolverine,” after the BOG had voted in 2007 to allow wolverine trapping in Chugach State Park, thus overturning a ban that had been in place since 1973—and despite the strong opposition of Rick Sinnott, then wildlife manager for the Anchorage area.
Team Wolverine fueled a local uprising. Strong opposition to the board’s action plus a new state-run wolverine population study convinced its members to rescind their action in 2009. That uncommon victory gave Taylor renewed hope in his quest to place greater limits on trapping, particularly in residential areas where they can harm dogs.
Fast forward to 2016. A chance encounter with assembly member Petersen led to a series of meetings that in turn produced a draft safe trails ordinance in early 2019, one that Taylor calls “brilliant,” in part because it follows guidelines established earlier by the BOG for areas in Chugach State Park where trapping is allowed for certain species (wolves and wolverines not among them), namely the 50-yard buffer and one-quarter-mile rule for trailheads, campgrounds, and dwellings.
When he was ready to introduce the ordinance, Petersen expressed confidence he could secure the necessary votes, but added that a strong turnout in support of safe trails would help. Taylor and other safe trails advocates spread the word and the public enthusiastically responded.
“When we finally had the meeting,” Taylor recalls, “all these wonderful people showed up to testify. It was like ‘Wow!’ It was an outpouring of support, just great.”
The next critical step: put together a list of trails that would be newly protected. With the help of friends, Taylor compiled a comprehensive list. When the assembly met to consider it in February, he expected some opposition. But there was none and the list passed unanimously.
Though he’s widely considered the primary force behind the municipality’s safe trails ordinance, Taylor defers to Petersen: “I’m just the guy who’s been pursuing increased trapping restrictions forever. Pete deserves the real credit. He’s the guy who stuck his neck out politically. He’s the guy who took it on.”
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.