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Pet dogs caught up in Idaho’s wolf-control effort

CLARK FORK, Idaho — Mary Franzel and her pets almost made it through Idaho's 2015-16 wolf trapping season unscathed.

On Friday, the Clark Fork resident was cross-country skiing north of town on Lightning Creek Road when her dog was caught at road's edge by a leg-hold trap.

It was Franzel's third intimate encounter in six years with Idaho's campaign to reduce the number of gray wolves that proliferated after being reintroduced in the mid-1990s.

In April 2010, her 85-pound German shepherd died after eating a piece of sausage laced with an over-the-counter poison.

"I saw my dogs pick something up from the middle of East Fork Lightning Creek Road as we hiked along," she said.

By the time Franzel drove home, the shepherd was foaming at the mouth and suffering grand mal seizures. "He died and it wasn't pretty," she said. "My other two dogs got less of the meat and the vet was able to treat them. They survived."

Putting out poison to kill wolves is illegal in Idaho and the culprit would be punished if caught, maybe. No one knows how common poisoning is among wolf haters, or how may pets, raptors and other wildlife are poisoned.

However, trapping is legal in Idaho. It's a useful management tool for wolves and other critters that are difficult to hunt.

But everyone who ventures into the woods during Idaho's wolf trapping season should know the hazards. From Nov. 15 through March 31, hidden wolf traps pose a threat that ranges from minor to deadly for pets.

In 2013, one of Franzel's dogs that survived the poisoning was caught in a leg-hold trap just 75 feet from where she parked her car off State Highway 200. She was out for a hike on Avista land near the Idaho-Montana border.

"We were on a nice trail that's fun to walk with a dog," she said. "Idaho Fish and Game said there should be no traps there without Avista's approval after I reported the incident, but they didn't even issue a citation. They just told the trapper to remove his traps."

Last week, Franzel and her 1-year-old adopted dog, Morgan, once again paid the price for living in Idaho wolf country. She's quick to point out the encounter could have been a lot worse.

"I just got off the phone with the trapper," Franzel said when called for an interview. "Actually, I was a bit taken back at first. Someone at Fish and Game gave the trapper my phone number without asking me after I called to report the incident and the numbers on the trap. I don't think that's generally a good idea.

"That said, the trapper was a very nice guy, and I appreciated the call. He said he was sorry my dog was caught by one of his traps and that he was glad to hear the dog is OK. He said he'd let me know when he puts out traps again."

Idaho trappers must take a mandatory course before purchasing wolf trapping tags. In the class, Idaho Fish and Game instructors encourage potential trappers to be cognizant of recreational use in areas where they are trapping, said Chip Corsi, the department's Panhandle Region manager.

"We encourage them to avoid placing sets with a high potential for a conflict," he said.

Page 33 of Idaho's trapping rules spells out that traps can be legally set within 5 feet from the center of a trail. Even dogs on a leash are exposed to traps.

Regarding roads, the rules say traps are simply required to be off the road and right of way, with an exception for bridges and culverts.

Wolves often cruise trails and blocked roads for easy going as their noses scan the breeze for the scent of prey. Trappers take advantage of that behavior by setting traps where they can be easily checked without getting off a snowmobile and leaving more human scent.

The trap that snapped on Morgan's foot last week was legally set just off the Lightning Creek Road, Fish and Game officials said, even though Franzel could touch the trap with her ski pole from the road.

Franzel doesn't condemn the trapper. "I know they have just as much right to be out there as long as they're following the law, and he was," she said.

He also used a non-lethal leg-hold trap for the set along the road. The steel trap pinched Morgan's paw but did not injure bones or break the skin, Franzel said.

"The dog was calm, so I took two photos before releasing him," she said. "There's blood on his paw in the picture, but that's from the squirrel bait at the trap."

The trapper told her he'd set another trap farther off the road that would have been much more difficult to release.

Indeed, Idaho allows a wide range of wolf traps, including deadly snares that can strangle any animal that walks through them, including deer.

Also allowed are Conibear body-gripping traps designed to be instantly lethal by suffocation or by crushing an animal's neck or skull.

Lethal traps limit suffering of a targeted animals, but leave no option to release a non-target species.

Before wolves returned to the landscape, Conibear traps were set mostly for beavers and underwater, where they were less likely to catch non-target species such as wolverines — or pets.

Idaho allows these unforgiving traps to be used on land, much to the off-the-record chagrin of some Idaho Fish and Game professionals.

Franzel is aware that in 2014, Idaho Fish and Game commissioners declined to modify trapping rules after two dogs were killed in body-gripping traps in North Idaho. The public meetings on the issue were emotional.

The commission opted instead for increased emphasis on trapper education. In addition, videos were posted on the Fish and Game website detailing how pet owners can release dogs from various traps.

No pet deaths from traps have been reported recently.

But Franzel wrote letters to all seven commissioners to let them know pets are still being trapped and there's still concern about trapping close to roads and trails.

"In Montana, the setback is 150 feet from the center of a trail and 300 feet on high-use trails," Franzel said.

"With Idaho's 5 feet from center of a trail (rule), even my horse is vulnerable when I ride. Even if it just snaps on its hoof, a trap could scare the horse, buck off the rider and be a bad deal."

She said she received a polite letter from Panhandle commissioner Brad Corkill of Cataldo, who said he'd forward her thoughts to the panel.

"He also noted that his dog had been caught in a trap while grouse hunting," she said.

As she cross-country skied along Lightning Creek Road north of Clark Fork, Idaho, local resident Mary Franzel saw a leg-hold trap snap shut on the paw of her pet dog, Morgan. The dog calmed quickly and she released the trap anchored at the edge of the road after taking this photo. The dog's foot was sore but no bones were broken nor was the skin. Courtesy photo