By the time John Reynolds found Penni, his springer spaniel, on that December day in 2011, it was too late. She was dead, her head caught in the steel jaws of a trapper's Conibear 220 trap.
The bobcat trap had been legally set on the ground, baited with beaver meat, Reynolds said.
Reynolds, of Baxter, Minn., is a longtime trapper himself. In fact, he was setting traps for foxes that day on Emily Lake northeast of Brainerd. He knew that other trappers might be using the area.
"I had searched the area because I knew (Penni) was going to be loose for a while," he said. "There were no other footprints, so I felt reasonably safe."
When he realized Penni was missing, he began calling and searching for her. He gave up after half an hour and headed for his car. On the way back, he found her in the trap about 50 feet from the trail. He managed to pry the trap open,
"I took it off her, but she was dead for so long she had started to cool off," he said.
As a result of that experience, and several other incidents in which dogs were killed in body-gripping traps, Reynolds helped form a group called Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping MN. The group, which now claims 3,000 members, was formed in May 2012 to lobby for changes in trapping regulations to protect dogs.
New, more restrictive, regulations for body-gripping traps went into effect last fall, but Reynolds says those regulations don't go far enough.
In 2012, 20 dogs were killed by body-gripping traps in Minnesota, according to Reynolds, 13 of them after the new trapping regulations went into effect Oct. 20. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources documented 20 incidents of dogs caught in traps since Oct. 20, nine of those fatal to the dogs, said Jason Abraham, furbearer specialist for the DNR.
The traps that most often result in the death of dogs are body-gripping Conibear 220s, Abraham said.
Minnesota sold about 10,000 trapping licenses in each of the past two years, Abraham said.
Legislation to further modify the rules for using body-gripping traps has been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature this year by Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter. The odds of that bill advancing are uncertain. Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee, wants trapping organizations and Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping MN to work out a compromise in the regulations.
"I have a Lab... I wouldn't want that to happen to my dog," Dill said. "On the other hand, there are considerations beyond that. Trapping has a long tradition here. Hopefully, the two sides will get together, and we'll have something to work with."
So far, the Dog Lovers group and trapping groups have not been able to forge a compromise, representatives from both sides say. But work on that is continuing.
"We're trying to come up with legislation that takes into consideration everyone's rights in the woods," said Gary Leistico of St. Cloud, a trapper and attorney representing the Minnesota Trappers Association. He said trappers and dog owners each have responsibility in preventing dogs from getting injured.
"We don't want to catch dogs. That's terrible," said Ken Wainionpaa of Gilbert, president of the Minnesota Forest Zone Trapping Association. "We're going to meet with the DNR furbearer committee in March and give them our ideas rather than go through legislation."
The bill, as introduced, stipulates that all body-gripping traps on land must be set at least 5 feet above the ground and "be placed in a manner so that the trap will protect domestic dogs from inadvertent taking, as provided in rules of the (DNR) commissioner."
Trappers in Northeastern Minnesota, since 2007, have had to place land-based Conibear traps of certain sizes at least 3 feet above ground to minimize the chances of catching Canada lynx. That has worked well for bobcat trappers in Northeastern Minnesota, Wainionpaa said. But 5 feet would be too high, he said.
"It would eliminate bobcat trapping," he said.
Leistico said the legislation as currently proposed "is extremely broad and would outlaw a lot of trapping that has no possibility of hurting a dog." He said the association wants to find a compromise that increases safety for dogs while preserving "meaningful" trapping in the state.
Leistico said the trappers association is exploring other steps that could minimize the risk to dogs, such as setbacks from state trails, roads, boat landings and other areas where people and dogs congregate.
A concern of the trappers association is creating rules that are easy to understand and follow, Leistico said. He also said any new regulations should differentiate between public and private lands; while restrictions may be implemented for public property, Leistico said they should not apply to private landowners -- and dog owners should respect those property rights.
A challenge to creating any new regulations, he said, is the wide variation of terrain across the state. Regulations that may seem reasonable in southern Minnesota may be unrealistic in the Northland, he said.
"We're not unwilling to work," Leistico said, noting last year's new regulations that he said have made a difference.
The DNR hasn't taken a position on the new legislation.
"We recognize there's an issue out there," the DNR's Abraham said. "We support those things that would reduce instances of dogs and pets getting caught in traps."
The DNR last year proposed regulations similar to those in Wisconsin, Michigan and New York, Abraham said.
"Other states have managed to reduce their incidental catches," he said. "I think we can do more than we're doing now. Both sides are going to have to come to some agreement."
Wisconsin modified its body-gripping trap rules in the 1990s and now requires body-gripping traps on land to be placed at least 5 feet off the ground, or, if on the ground, to meet other restrictions designed to prevent dogs from being accidentally caught, said Todd Naas, wildlife biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Ashland. Some of those other restrictions for ground sets include creating enclosures to prevent dogs from being caught.
"Prior to implementation of those laws, it was common for there to be 20 to 30 dogs a year captured in those body-gripping traps," Naas said. "Overnight, after implementation of those laws, it went down to zero, but there's still an occasional incident here and there."
Trappers have adapted to the changes, he said.
"Initially, some trappers felt it was a lot of extra work and extra equipment to create enclosures for these traps," Naas said. "But it didn't reduce the efficiency of those traps."