MERRIFIELD, Minn. -- Bobcat trapping season opens Dec. 19 in Minnesota and John Reynolds is worried about your dog.
“It happens every year. It’s going to happen this year. Someone’s dog, someone’s pet, or their favorite hunting dog, is going to die in a trap,’’ said Reynolds, of Merrifield, in central Minnesota's Crow Wing County. “And it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Reynolds has been working for changes in Minnesota trapping laws since 2011 when his favorite springer spaniel, Penni — the best hunting dog he ever owned —- was killed in a body-grip trap set for a wild animal. Reynolds drew statewide media attention in 2012 and 2013 when he tried to get the state Legislature to change trapping laws to protect dogs. A few minor changes were made at the time and the issue mostly faded from the limelight.
But dogs are still dying in traps each year and Reynolds is still working to prevent it from happening.
“I’m not going to give up,’’ Reynolds said. “They (state lawmakers and trapping groups) keep killing the bills each year and the traps keep killing dogs and I’m going to keep coming back until it changes.”
Ironically Reynolds remains an avid trapper. He’s adamant that he’s not out to ban trapping or even ban body-grip traps, the most deadly for dogs. Instead, he wants state law changed to require the traps be placed several feet above the ground or in other setups where dogs can’t get into them.
"I talked to one trapper who said his favorite (bobcat) bait was a grouse carcass. And here we have dogs trained to tune-in on grouse scent wandering into these traps."
— John Reynolds
Since 2012, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources started keeping track, at least 35 dogs have been killed in traps. From 2012 to 2018, the last year for which the DNR has complete data available, 161 dogs were reported caught in all types of traps, most surviving.
Of the 35 dogs reported killed, 29 of them were caught in so-called body grip or Conibear traps, the others died in snares.
Reynolds says the actual number of dogs killed is far higher. By scouring social media, news reports and other leads, he's tracked down at least 94 Minnesota dog owners who have lost dogs to traps in recent years.
“The DNR's numbers are just the ones they get reports on,'' he said. . “I don’t think a lot of trappers are going to report what they accidentally kill. And a lot of distraught dog owners still don’t know they should report it to the DNR ... or maybe they are reluctant to report it.”
New push at the Legislature, on social media
This winter Reynolds' efforts are gaining some steam. The group he founded in 2012 — Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping MN — raised enough money in recent months to hire a professional lobbyist for the first time to convince Minnesota lawmakers during their upcoming 2021 session to change state trapping laws.
Reynolds said unsuspecting dogs are lured into traps placed on the ground by scents or bait.
“I talked to one trapper who said his favorite (bobcat) bait was a grouse carcass. And here we have dogs trained to tune-in on grouse scent wandering into these traps.
“I’m a trapper. I’ve trapped in probably five states ... But I don’t put these deadly traps on the ground where they can kill dogs so easily,’’ Reynolds said.
Reynolds' crusade started on Dec. 17, 2011 when he was out setting traps for fox. That’s when Penni, his grouse hunting dog, was lured to her death in a Conibear 220 body grip trap set just off the trail where he parked his truck. It happened so fast, and even though Reynolds was close by and knows how to release traps, he couldn’t save his dog.
Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping MN is pushing for four changes Reynolds says will reduce if not eliminate dogs dying in traps — including that body-grip traps in sizes capable of trapping dogs be placed 5 feet above the ground or ice, or submerged in water, or in boxes that make it impossible for a dog to stick its head into. The group also is asking that lethal snares be banned and replaced with non-lethal cable restraint snares if used on land.
“I love trapping. I don’t want to see trapping end. But there’s no reason for this to still be happening,’’ Reynolds said, noting his group will disband as soon as the changes are made.
In 1997, Wisconsin wardens kept track of reports of dogs caught in traps and tallied 27, including 18 that died. Wisconsin modified its body-gripping trap rules in 1998 and now requires they be placed at least 5 feet off the ground, or, if on the ground, to meet other restrictions designed to keep dogs from being caught. Wisconsin wildlife officials have said reports of dogs killed in traps went from 25-30 per year to one or two at most since the changes.
In Minnesota, key legislative committee chairmen have blocked the bills from advancing. Several Minnesota state lawmakers had hoped that the dog lovers and trappers could work out a compromise. But, after eight years, the two sides are still far apart.
In addition to hiring a professional lobbyist to press the issue at the state Capitol, Reynolds said Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping MN has hired a social media manager to make more of Minnesota’s estimated 2 million dog owners aware of the problem.
“The problem is that many people don’t know this is happening, that trapping is still happening, probably near where they walk their dog, if not at their home then where they go on vacation,’’ Reynolds said. “We need to make more dog owners aware of the situation and that will go a long way in getting the attention of the Legislature.”
Trappers say elevated traps won’t work
Many trappers say elevated traps simply won’t work to catch animals like bobcat and raccoon which spend most of their time on the ground.
“I’ve never caught a bobcat with anything that wasn’t on the ground, and I’ve trapped a lot of them,’’ said John Backman of Embarrass, an avid trapper. “They just won’t go into a trap off the ground. Same with coon. They can go up a tree, but they don’t want to.”
Backman said additional restrictions on how and where traps are placed will serve only to push more people out of trapping after historically low fur prices already have taken their toll.
But Backman, who serves as regional director of the Minnesota Trappers Association, said he has some of his one ideas on how to keep dogs out of traps.
“The first is for people to keep their dogs at home … Most of the dogs you hear about in traps are wandering around off (their owner’s) property,’’ he said.
Backman speaks from experience. In January 2019, one of his body-grip traps killed a dog that had been leaving its owner's property to go onto other private property where Backman had set traps for bobcat that were baited with beaver meat.
“He chose not to keep his dog in check even though he knew I was trapping in the area,” Backman said. ”Nobody wants to see this happen. But dog owners need to take some responsibility.”
Backman also said the state should shut down grouse hunting before the trapping season starts on Dec. 19 to keep dogs out of the trapping woods. The grouse season traditionally runs through Dec. 31. (That remedy wouldn’t help alleviate the dogs-in-traps problem in the state’s pheasant range, where pheasant hunting and racoon/fox trapping seasons overlap nearly from the start in October.)
Backman says northern trappers have already compromised, starting in 2019, when the start of bobcat, fisher and marten seasons were delayed three weeks, from the Saturday over Thanksgiving weekend to the Saturday before Christmas. DNR officials say that delay was indeed in part to reduce conflicts with grouse hunting and other activities in the woods that tend to diminish as December and winter set in. The delay was also hoped to encourage more young trappers to go afield during their holiday school break.
“We’ve already given up a lot, delaying the season three weeks. Maybe they could shut their (grouse hunting) season down a couple weeks early so we can still have ours?’’ Backman noted.
As trapping has declined, so have dog deaths
The number of licensed trappers in Minnesota has declined more than 40% over the past seven years, in large part due to the low prices trappers are paid for their furs. Since then the number of dogs officially reported killed also has declined, from a high of nine in 2012 — also a high year for fur prices and license sales — to just two dog deaths reported this year so far.
“The guys still trapping are doing it because they love it. Most of the guys who were trying to make money on it, at least up here, got out,’’ Backman said. “It’s hard to even pay for your gas money now.”
Jason Abraham, the Minnesota DNR’s season management specialist who keeps track of the reported dogs caught in traps, said reports have dropped dramatically in recent years along with the drop in trappers afield.
“There’s a strong correlation between the number of reports and fur prices/trapping activity. Fur prices have been very low in recent years, and the number of (dog trapping) incidents has declined as well,’’ he said.
Abraham said the DNR is prohibited by state statute from enacting stronger restrictions on where traps are placed, leaving any major changes up to the Legislature.
“In 2012, restrictions on body-gripping traps were codified’’ in state statutes, Abraham said. “Rules adopted by the agency (DNR) cannot be more restrictive than statute, so it may be difficult for the agency to require additional measures around body-grip traps through rulemaking.
The primary change in 2012 required trappers to put a 7-inch long visor or canopy or box or “cubby” traps on the ground to prevent dogs from sticking their heads in.
Gunflint Trail dogs trapped
While Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping MN efforts are focused only on body gripping traps and snares, Biz Clark wants tighter rules on leghold traps as well. Her little corgi, Ruckus, was caught in a leghold trap last month as she walked the dog along a forest road near her home on the Gunflint Trail.
“The dog was about 15 feet behind me and suddenly let out this horrible cry,’’ Clark said of the incident, that happened on Nov. 4.
Clark was unable to free the dog but eventually found a neighbor who brought a crowbar. They couldn’t open the jaws on the trap but they did dig the anchor out of the ground and then transported the dog, still caught in the trap, to another neighbor who had the strength to spring the jaws.
Ruckus didn’t suffer any lasting injuries. But Clark said that two Minnesota conservation officers who responded to her report said two other dogs had been caught in traps nearby in the same week. One required serious veterinary care. Clarke said the officers told her the traps were set legally but that the trapper should have known better than to set them close to a well-used road.
“I’m not anti-trapping. But trapping is an incompatible use in an area where people are recreating and walking dogs. This is a highly used area,’’ she said. “It’s beyond belief that Minnesota still allows trappers to set these traps near where people are and not even have to put up any sign the trap is there.”
Clark wants Minnesota laws changed so trappers must place an obvious sign above the trap so it can be easily seen and avoided. She also wants them to be placed well off any public road or trail.
“The (Superior) national forest is a multi-use recreation area and one user shouldn’t be allowed to do something that kills another person's pet,’’ Clark said. “This needs to end.”
But trapper John Backman of Embarrass said any such sign would be an invitation for theft.
“If we marked our traps, the bunny huggers would go in and steal them,’’ he said. “Or, we have fur thieves, someone would come in and steal it to use…. Having a sign would just invite people to fool with them.”
Still other trapping critics want the state’s trespass laws changed. It’s currently legal to set traps on someone else's wooded private property — even without the landowner’s permission — if the land is not posted.
Dogs killed in traps reported to Minnesota DNR
2012 = 9
2013 = 2
2014 = 5
2015 = 7
2016 = 1
2017 = 3
2018 = 4
2019 = 2
2020 = 2
Source: Minnesota DNR (records started in 2012)
Dog owners, know before you go: Trapping seasons in northern Minnesota
Bobcat: Dec. 19 to Jan. 24, 2021
Fisher and pine marten: Dec. 19 to Dec. 27
Raccoon and fox: Oct. 17 to March 25, 2021
Coyote and skunk: Continuous, no season or limits.
Minnesota Trappers Association offers free dog release kits
The Minnesota Trappers Association is a good source of information trapping in the state. The group also offers dog owners free “dog release kits’’ that make it easier to release dogs from body grip traps. The kits include heavy duty zip-ties and instructions on how to release the springs that keep body-grip traps tight on the animal. For more information go to Mntrappers.org. The group also offers an instructional video on how to release a dog from a body grip trap. Go to mntrappers.org/files/bodygrip.pdf.