We had the trail to ourselves. But you wouldn’t know it.
My dog — a 4-year-old golden retriever — and I were on the Paul Bunyan Trail near Nisswa on one of those recent 50-plus degree days. It was a weekday, so there was absolutely no traffic on the paved trail as we walked south from Nisswa toward Merrifield. A perfect day — and a rare opportunity — for him to enjoy time off the leash to stray just a bit off the beaten path. Not too far, mind you, but far enough to enjoy some freedom.
As early as a week before that, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.
But not on this day. And probably not anytime soon. It’s just not worth it.
A week earlier I did a story involving two dogs killed by Conibear 220 traps in the greater Brainerd lakes area. Up until then, I didn’t know these traps were out there. And while there may not have been any such traps anywhere near the Paul Bunyan Trail between Nisswa and Merrifield, I wasn’t about to take any chances.
That I felt threatened (at least for my dog), and at the same time powerless to do anything about it, frustrated me.
I’m not a trapper, but I have nothing against trapping. I know it helps control certain species, and monies from licenses help fund DNR projects and efforts, which is good. And if someone wants to make a few extra bucks trapping — even a living, in some instances — that’s OK.
But these traps are not.
Conibear 220 traps are commonly baited and set — on the ground — inside a 5-gallon bucket or small crate. A lightweight, powerful and compact body-gripping trap with a jaw spread of seven inches, it’s effective for trapping and killing bobcat, fishers and otters in this area. The animal sticks its head in the bucket or crate — and the jaws of the trap — in search of the bait, trips the trap, has its neck snapped and is dead within minutes.
While it’s rare that these traps do catch dogs, the two dogs in the story were killed in a 10-day span. And it only takes one such incident to make people think twice about enjoying time afield with their dogs. One of the dogs killed, an English setter, was a prized hunting dog and was doing what its owner had spent countless hours teaching it to do — find grouse; the other dog was on a routine outing with its owner when it strayed away for just a moment.
The story prompted 60-plus comments from readers on both sides — trappers who insist they have as much right to the woods as anyone else and those who say they feel, well, trapped, by the fact that trappers can pretty much put these traps anywhere they like.
Most of the latter also said they didn’t have a problem with trapping — including the two men who lost their dogs; both said they had trapped at one time or another. Instead, it’s the type of traps being used — and the fact that they’re allowed to be placed on the ground — that is a problem, they say.
Yes, Conibear 220s are extremely effective, but there are other options, such as footholds, which could still injure a dog, but wouldn’t be a death sentence. And if 220s absolutely, positively have to be used, place them off the ground four or five feet. Fishers and bobcats will still get into them; dogs will not.
In the most recent DNR Conservation Officers’ Report, there were 18 reports of trapping violations or complaints across the state. Many were fairly minor — incidentally trapped fishers and the like. But in the Cass Lake area, the CO “received a trapping complaint that led to violations for not tending traps, untagged traps and illegal body-grip sets.” And in the Princeton area, the CO reported that “several dogs were caught in traps, and several illegal traps were found.”
Yes, the trapping season ended Jan. 8, but I’m not relieved. All it takes is one forgotten trap.
A reader from the Palisade area emailed me after the story, saying “Less than two weeks ago, while on our daily walk, my daughter-in-law’s boxer was nearly killed by a trap, which was placed 10 feet off our road. If the neighbor (who knew how to release the trap) had not miraculously come along, she would have died, and we would have had to watch her die a horrible death. We called DNR Enforcement and discovered this is completely legal. Since then, we have discovered there are two trappers who are maintaining traps along every road we walk on. We’re afraid to go on walks in our own neighborhood, and are concerned that even after the season ends, we could still run across forgotten traps. From reading the DNR trapping regulations, it seems trappers have all the rights, and we have none. As long as they set a trap on a road right-of-way, they can set one right at my driveway if they choose.”
The writer and at least one of those who commented on my story said they will campaign to change the state’s trapping regulations.
Jason Abraham, season setting/fur bearer specialist for the DNR in St. Paul, said that in 2010, the DNR enacted rules restricting the placement of 220 body-gripping traps near houses and buildings occupied by livestock and said the DNR will continue to discuss regulations aimed at limiting accidental catches of pets when it meets in the coming months.
Such regulations could even impact hunting and, ultimately, hunting licenses and monies raised from those licenses. In recent years, the DNR has worked hard to get more people involved in outdoor activities, including hunting. But knowing what I know now, if I were just considering getting into bird hunting or was on the fence in regard to training a dog, spending the money involved to hunt and, finally, buying a license, I don’t know if I would do it.
Said another reader: “It feels like some guy who lives down the road who decides he wants to make some extra money can place a hidden booby trap that I have to somehow stay clear of without knowing where to look. Not fair, in my opinion.
“I have also read in several places that some trappers use the remains of game birds as bait ... and you are saying it’s my fault if my dog gets caught in a trap by doing what I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours training him to do, track and flush those same birds. It sounds like the old Halloween horror stories I heard as a kid of some freak putting razor blades in candy bars.”
Here’s hoping that Abraham and the DNR have the courage to do the right thing and change the regulations as they pertain to Conibear 220 traps. Until then, my dog’s days afield are over.
Not fair, in my opinion.
BRIAN S. PETERSON, outdoors editor, may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/brian_speterson. For his blogs, go to www.brainerddispatch.com.