Kevin Auslund had been a big supporter of the state’s fledgling walk-in hunter access program, which pays landowners to allow public hunting.
“They are beautiful lands, with lots of wetlands — probably some of the best pheasant hunting land you’ll find,’’ he said.
But three years after the program was launched, Auslund, 55, of Eden Prairie, was astonished to learn last fall that landowners retain trapping rights and can give others permission to trap on the 20,000 acres they have enrolled in the program.
Auslund is concerned hunting dogs will be accidentally caught and killed in traps and said he and other hunters had assumed no trapping was allowed, based on wording in the Department of Natural Resources’ regulations booklet.
“My mouth dropped on the floor; I couldn’t believe it,’’ he said.
And still doesn’t.
Auslund — a longtime outdoors activist who formed a nonprofit group Sportsmen Take Action (sportsmentakeaction.org) — argues that the state law establishing the walk-in access (WIA) program specifically prohibits trapping. The group hired an attorney and has written Gov. Mark Dayton, asking him to intervene.
“This change will put the lives of our hunting dogs in jeopardy …’’ Auslund wrote in his letter to Dayton.
Auslund cites the law creating the walk-in program, which states:
“A walk-in access program is established to provide public access to wildlife habitat on private land for hunting, excluding trapping, as provided under this section.’’
But DNR officials say Auslund and his supporters are misreading the law.
“The law says the public use of the land is for hunting, not for trapping,’’ said Ed Boggess, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division director. The lands aren’t open to public trapping. “But it doesn’t say the landowner can’t still trap their own land.’’
Or give permission for others to trap there.
The DNR hasn’t changed its position since the program was launched in 2011, said Bob Welsh, DNR wildlife habitat program manager. But officials realized last year that some people were misinterpreting the law, he said. So they added a sentence to the 2013 walk-in atlas saying landowners retained trapping rights. Auslund spotted it and cried foul.
The DNR plans to further clarify the issue in the 2014 hunting and trapping regulation booklet with this:
WIA sites provide for public hunting only. Individuals with a WIA Access Validation can hunt during legal hunting hours, during any open hunting season (including spring turkey), with no landowner contacts necessary. No target practice, trapping, dog training, camping, horseback riding or fires are allowed by the public. The landowner retains the right to engage in, or give permission to engage in, hiking/dog walking on leash, trapping, camping, horseback riding, or campfires, and other limited activities that do not impede public hunting. No vehicles or OHVs are allowed.
Said Welsh: “We talked about it [trapping] from the beginning when we were developing the program.’’ Officials decided not to include trapping as an allowable public activity on the walk-in lands because they feared it might deter landowners from signing up for the program. An estimated 13,000 hunters used the walk-in lands last year. Boggess said the DNR believes trapping doesn’t “impede” public hunting.
“Our WMAs [state wildlife management areas] are open to trapping, so we feel hunting and trapping are compatible activities,’’ Boggess said. The state’s 1.4 million-acre WMA system is open to public hunting. Federal waterfowl production areas (WPAs) also are open to both public hunting and trapping.
Auslund remains unconvinced.
“They are bending over backward to allow trapping,’’ he said. “This is all about economics. When money walks in the door, common sense and ethics goes out the door.’’
The issue of dogs being accidentally caught in traps has been simmering for several years. Since 2011, an estimated 25 dogs have been killed in traps, said John Reynolds, 60, of Merrifield, Mn. The DNR started recording such cases on Oct. 20, 2012, and lists 11 dog deaths — two of them on state wildlife management areas.
Reynolds formed Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping (www.doglovers4safetrappingmn.org) after losing his hunting dog to a trap in 2011. He has pushed, unsuccessfully, for legislation restricting the use of body-gripping traps. Reynolds said he believes hunters with dogs can coexist with trappers if there are proper trapping restrictions that would prevent dogs from being accidentally caught.
The Minnesota Trappers Association (www.mntrappers.org) has said that existing trap restrictions are adequate, that trappers work hard to minimize incidental catches, and that accidental catches of dogs are extremely rare.