Downtown Skagway.

Downtown Skagway.

The Skagway Assembly last week devoted three and half hours to the topic of trapping with about half of that taken time taken up with comments from the public. It was just the latest in a discussion that has lasted more than a year.

In the time the Skagway Assembly has spent trying to draft and agree on a local law that would regulate trapping, there’s been very little common ground. The only thing people do agree on is that the issue has divided the community. 

“We have a lot of pressing things we’ll have to deal with in the coming months and this is an emotional, passionate issue that divides the town,” said assembly member Tim Cochrain.

The assembly worked on an ordinance outlining local regulations for trapping within Skagway last year. It took about six months for an ordinance to pass the assembly with restrictions on how far traps have to be from roads and trails, identification on traps, specific areas in the borough open to trapping and other details.

Then, there was confusion about whether some of the regulations were legal under state law. Newly elected assembly member Angela Greiser tried to clarify some of the confusion by proposing changes. But instead of discussing those specific changes, the packed assembly chambers last Thursday continued debating whether Skagway should be trying to regulate trapping in any way, at all.

Also in the audience this time was Alaska Trappers Association President Randy Zarnke of Fairbanks. His organization sent a letter to Skagway leaders a few months ago that said local governments should not regulate trapping because that is done by the state.

“I’m sure you folks have all received a copy of the letter that our attorney sent in regards to the conflict between the borough writing an ordinance that regulates trapping when in reality that should be done by the state through the Board of Game process,” Zarnke said.

Juneau-based of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Stephanie Sell was also at Thursday’s meeting. She emphasized the state’s role in managing trapping. She said communities can regulate some things – like where within a borough trapping is allowed. But the reasons have to be clear.

“If there’s a public safety concern, and there is some concern that pets or kids or whatever will get caught in traps then fair enough,” Sell said. “The borough has the authority to say ‘Hey, we’re concerned about public safety.’ But I think it’s really important that those facts needs to be justified. The courts are going to need some sort of evident of a real problem to justify why you’re saying public safety.”

Sell said more specific regulations – like what kinds of traps can be used in  certain areas – is not OK.

That didn’t make it easier for the assembly to decide how to proceed. Mayor Mark Schaefer suggested the assembly could toss out the whole ordinance and let residents use the Board of Game process if they want more specific laws than are in state regulations. Or, Schaefer said, the assembly could let the borough attorney make suggestions on how to change the ordinance so the city doesn’t run afoul of state law. Some assembly members were hesitant to draw the process out any longer.

“I think the longer we go in committee … we dealt with that for five months and I watched this community get very divided,” said Spencer Morgan. “It was stated here – there’s not going to be warm fuzzies anymore. And so I think the longer it goes on the more divided this community does become and I don’t know how productive that is.”

Schaefer says he suspects local regulations to do with trapping will eventually come up as a voter initiative on a ballot.

One statistic the biologist Sell shared at the meeting seemed surprising, considering how many people showed up at the meeting in support of trappers. She said Skagway only has a handful of trappers – four or less – in the last 10 years that have sealed furs and reported catches to Fish and Game.

“In the grand scheme of things, Skagway is a very, very small trapping community,” she said.

Finally, after three and half hours into the meeting, the assembly voted down the changes proposed by Grieser, with the intent that she will revamp the ordinance in the civic affairs committee she chairs on Monday night. Then, it will again come back before the assembly to hear public comment on and vote.