It was the last hunt of the year for Tim Manning Jr. and his golden retriever, Bella, and as they walked out of the woods near Brainerd on a cold December day, the 3-year-old dog yelped.
"She was in a trap," said Manning, a trap set just off the public hunting trail. He and his brother-in-law tried futilely to get the double-spring body-gripping trap off Bella's neck, where it was crushing her windpipe.
"Our fingers were just too cold," said Manning, 45, of Ramsey. "She was unconscious in about 30 seconds. I felt totally helpless. I told her I was sorry. There's just nothing worse.
"We finally got the trap off, but it was too late," he said this week. "We tried CPR, but nothing worked. She was such a great dog."
Bella is one of at least nine dogs that have been killed in body- gripping traps since the trapping season began in October -- this despite changes to laws this year intended to minimize the accidental trapping of pets. The Department of Natural Resources has recorded 17 incidents, eight of them fatal to dogs, excluding Manning's case. All of the dogs were killed in body- gripping, or Conibear-style, traps.
Jason Abraham, DNR furbearer specialist, said it's too early to determine if the new law is a failure because this is the first season the agency has actively tried to record dog-trap incidents, so no one knows exactly how common they are.
"I wouldn't want to draw any conclusions,'' he said. "We just don't have a full picture.''
The DNR had proposed more restrictive regulations for body- gripping traps last year, but the Legislature rejected them. However, two legislators say they plan to introduce tighter restrictions this session.
"The bottom line is there still is a problem,'' said Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood. "Dogs are being trapped and killed. We need to address it.''
Wiger and Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, introduced more restrictive trapping regulations last session, but the bills got no traction. Wiger said with the DFL in control, he expects the bills will be heard.
Minnesota Trappers Association legislative director Con Christianson acknowledged the issue will be brought up again this session. But he said the DNR needs to analyze results from the most recent trapping season to better understand the effectiveness of the current law. The DNR plans to do that, Abraham said.
But John Reynolds, 59, of Merrifield, a longtime hunter and trapper who lost his springer spaniel, Penni, to a trap last December, said the death of at least nine dogs since fall shows the new regulation isn't working.
"Not one bit,'' he said.
Reynolds helped form Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping, a nonprofit group that advocates for tighter regulations on body-gripping traps. The group has about 3,000 members, he said.
"People started calling me with their horror stories, and it just took off,'' he said.
The group isn't anti-trapping, he said. "We're just trying to protect dogs. When we fix the problem, the group dissolves. But until it's fixed, we won't go away.''
His organization, along with the Minnesota Trail Hound Association and several trapping groups, will meet Saturday to explore possible solutions. The session was set up by Tim Spreck, president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance. "We're going to try to see if there might be some common ground,'' Spreck said.
Ward, the state representative, is hopeful.
"I told them this is an opportunity to come up with a solution, but if they don't do it, we'll introduce legislation,'' he said. "The solution passed last year has had little or no impact on reducing deaths of dogs.''
Reynolds wants size 155, 160 and 220 Conibear-style traps eliminated from ground use. Under his proposal, they could be used 5 feet above ground, or underwater. Currently, non-baited 220 traps can be placed in the open on trails, and at least four dog deaths occurred in such sets. The other five, including Manning's case, occurred in "cubby" boxes.
The law passed last year requires a so-called cubby set to include a 7-inch overhang intended to prevent dogs from sticking their heads in the box to reach the bait. But the requirement only applies to traps set on public lands.
Trappers counter that setting Conibear traps off the ground will make bobcat trapping more difficult.
Meanwhile, Manning said he and his wife and two young boys were devastated by the death of their dog.
"The kids cried for a long time,'' he said. "She was such a gentle dog.''
He's getting another golden retriever puppy, but Bella's death changed things.
"I won't hunt up around Brainerd anymore,'' Manning said.
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org