Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Twenty Dead Dogs is Too Many

By Shawn Perich

A strange, sad irony of this legislative session is that efforts to save wolves from hunting may lead to the deaths of some dogs by trapping. Efforts to revisit the regulations regarding the use of body-grip traps, which critics say are responsible for killing several dogs every year in Minnesota, have been stymied by legislators who say they will not introduce any trapping bills in 2013 for fear that anti-wolf hunting measures may be attached to them.

The issue of body-grip traps and dogs is not new. For years, dog owners have complained, often after losing a pet, about the lethal consequences of a dog being inadvertently caught in a body-grip trap, which is designed to kill quickly. The dog owner may have even been there when the incident occurred, but lacked the ability to remove the trap before it killed the dog. The Minnesota DNR has always acknowledged such incidents occur, but essentially brushes them off as insignificant on a statewide basis.

But dog deaths suddenly became significant a couple of years ago, when a handful of dog owners, most of whom had lost dogs in body-grip traps, decided to do something about the issue. They formed a group, Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping, to push for reform of the rules for using body-grip traps. Most of the members are the owners of hunting dogs. They emphasize that while they are seeking changes to trapping rules, they are not opposed to trapping.

“Our group tries very hard to distance ourselves from anti trapping and hunting organizations,” says Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping MN board member and hunter Brett Harberts of Emily.

Unlike foothold traps, which are designed to capture and hold an animal by its foot, body-grips are intended to kill an animal quickly by closing on its neck. They are also commonly called “Conibear” traps after inventor Frank Conibear. While they come in sizes small enough for muskrats to large enough for beavers, the mid-sized traps, sizes 160 and 220, are of greatest concern to dog owners. In Minnesota, both traps may be set on the ground either in a baited set or as unbaited set along a trail. The beaver-sized 330 body-grip must be at least half-submerged in water, which makes it much less likely to inadvertently capture dogs or other unintended animals.

Last year, the Legislature tweaked body-grip rules so that 160s and 220s used in baited sets must be recessed seven inches from the top of an enclosure or placed at least three feet off the ground. Unbaited body-grips must be at least 20 feet from any attractant. These statewide rules are significantly less restrictive than rules put in place several years ago to protect the federally threatened Canada lynx in northeastern Minnesota. According to the lynx rules, any 160 or 220 placed on the ground must be set in a cubby, with the trap a minimum of seven inches from the opening. The opening may not exceed 50 square inches, which is a 7- by 7-inch square. Unbaited trail sets are not allowed.

Here in the northeast, I’ve heard few, if any reports of dogs being killed in body-grips since the lynx rules were adopted. The same cannot be said of the statewide rule. The Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping MN website notes the organization documented 13 dogs killed between Oct. 20 and Dec. 31, 2012, the first trapping season for which the new statewide rules were in effect. An additional 7 dogs were killed between Jan. 1 and Mar. 15 2012, before the rules were enacted. This means a total of 20 dogs were killed by traps in Minnesota during 2012.

Harberts says in contrast, Wisconsin has reported very few dog deaths due to body-grips since changing its trapping rules in the late 1990s. At the time, Wisconsin was among several states that modified trapping rules following the national development of Best Management Practices (BMPs) for trapping. Minnesota chose not to incorporate BMPs into its trapping regulations. In fact, aside the state’s trapping regulations have been largely unchanged for decades.

The same could be said of the mindset of the state’s wildlife bureaucracy and state trapping leaders, both of whom have been reluctant to take the concerns of dog owners seriously, perhaps from a fear that by doing so they would be taking a step down a slippery slope toward and eventual all-out trapping ban.

The problem is Minnesota has changed. In 1980 Minnesota’s population was just over 4 million. In 2012, the population was estimated at nearly 5.4 million. During that time frame we’ve seen a tremendous outmigration to rural areas, especially in the lakes region, by people seeking a better quality of life. Very often that quality of life involves spending more time outdoors. Trappers are no longer alone out there in late fall and winter. They are now joined by bird hunters using pointers and retrievers and hunters using hounds to pursue raccoons, coyotes, rabbits and other critters. No less important are the many rural dwellers who take their dogs along when hiking, skiing and winter camping. It’s fair to say none of these folks wants their dog to be at risk of being killed in a trap, especially on public land or road right-of-ways.

In recent years, the Minnesota Trappers Association has run an advertisement in the state hunting regulations booklet showing how to remove an animal from a body-grip trap. From my own experience using body-grips, I don’t believe the Average Joe or Jill would have the know-how or physical strength to quickly remove a body-grip from their pet. Instead, what happens, over and over again, is the dog owner helplessly stands by and watches their pet die.

Harberts says Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping MN may have been stymied by the 2013 Legislature, but they aren’t going away until dogs are safe from body-grip traps. It won’t be easy to change existing rules, because trappers and wildlife bureaucrats are reluctant to give up body-grip trapping techniques that are effective and convenient for trappers. Harberts says his group and the Minnesota Trail Hound Association continue to have cordial discussions with trappers on the issue, but have made little progress toward resolution. Until they do so, more folks are likely to lose their hunting dogs and family pets.

Killing 20 dogs in a year is unacceptable, especially when nearly all of those losses are preventable. It’s time for the DNR to act like professional wildlife managers and address the issue. The agency’s goal should be to have zero dogs killed in body-grips, even if it is difficult to achieve. The DNR needs to take the appropriate steps to achieve that goal through a combination of conflict resolution and new trapping rules. While making changes to protect dogs may inconvenience trappers, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence from Wisconsin or other states that doing so will have any effect on the fur harvest. It’s past time for Minnesota to make the changes necessary to protect dogs from body-grip traps.

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