There's new blood in the battle for the Minnesota bush.
The fight pits fur trappers versus other outdoorsmen, some hunters, some trappers themselves. John Reynolds generals the latter. A trapper by hobby, Reynolds got called into duty after his dog Penni suffered a gruesome fate.
He walked on snow-patched government land 25 miles northeast of Brainerd, finding fox tracks and no signs of humans. Penni accompanied Reynolds when he came back to set leg-hold traps, those devices that catch by appendage, which are rarely fatal and must be checked by trappers daily, according to state law.
It'd take 15 minutes to set them, and his springer spaniel never strayed. Reynolds was sure of his simple plan.
But Penni took her last breath after sticking her snout in a plastic box baited with meat. What's called a body-gripping trap exploded into action, crushing her trachea and probably fracturing the dog's spine.
"She was dead before I even knew she'd been caught," he remembers.
It's a conflict that flames anew every fall. Hunters take to the woods starting in September, trappers a month later when the season for raccoons, badgers, and foxes opens.
Body grips remain the trap of choice for Minnesota's estimated 5,000 trappers. Not because they're more effective, but because they only have to be checked every three days, according to Reynolds, president of Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping MN. That sloth and the refusal to remedy it, he says, has already claimed hundreds of canine casualties over the years.
"[Leg-holds] catch more animals," Reynolds says. "With body grips, you'll can have bobcats that lay in front of the box, but won't stick their head in. You'll hear various arguments against changing the ways trapping is done, but I'm telling you it's because they don't want to check their traps every day that's really the driving force."
Reynolds' group has taken the issue to St. Paul repeatedly. It wants new regulations that would spare dogs the death Penni suffered. Foremost, it wants body grips taken off the ground. That would mean trappers must affix the rigged enclosures five feet up a tree or submerged in water.
"That would go a long way to help fix what's wrong," says Reynolds, who stopped grouse hunting four years ago out of fear for the safety of his bird dogs.
Minnesota Trappers Association President Jerry Larsen didn't respond to repeated messages seeking comment.
According to a recent DNR survey of trappers, respondents overwhelmingly said greater regulation on body grips would hurt their ability to catch the likes of fisher, marten, and bobcats. Moreover, when asked if they were concerned about dogs dying accidentally, only 18 percent said yes.
Trappers' allies are many in St. Paul. Bills have been introduced in each of the five past sessions. In every instance they've been banished to committee, where they die.
"I don't think there is appetite at the Legislature to make any changes," Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Good Thunder) told the Star Tribune in 2012. "We can't solve all the world's problems with over-regulation."
Reynolds disagrees. He believes the issue will attract enough support next session to make it to the floor for a vote.
"The number of dogs killed like this doesn't have to be reported so we don't know how many," he says. "We do hear stories. There will be more and more of them if trappers don't change our ways."
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