FAIRBANKS – All it took was one or two wrestling matches with moose caught in wolf snares he set to convince Fairbanks trapper Jim Masek there had to be a way to make a snare strong enough to hold a wolf but not so strong that a moose couldn’t break free.
“(Dealing with a snared moose) is a real risky game,” Masek, who has been trapping for 20-plus years on the Minto Flats, told the all-male class of about 20 students at a snare-building workshop at the Department of Fish and Game Hunter Education Indoor Shooting Range on Saturday.
“You’re probably going to get the snot kicked out of you when you’re trying to get the snare off and then again once you get it off,” he said. “Most people don’t realize it, but a moose can kick straight forward; it can punch.”
After catching dozens of moose throughout the years, Masek has been kicked and punched more times than he can remember.
“It’s a pretty dangerous game,” he said of freeing snared moose. “That’s why these breakaway snares are a good thing, just to save your own hide.”
While they are common and even required in many Lower 48 states for deer, breakaway snares for moose in Alaska are a relative novelty, said Craig Gardner, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who helped develop them.
“I’d like to see more trappers use them,” Gardner said. “The movement (to develop a breakaway snare for moose) started in the Interior, but it doesn’t look to me that Interior trappers have embraced them compared to other parts of Alaska.”
Masek has and not just because he’s tired of getting the snot kicked out of him.
“We’re not out there to kill moose,” Masek said. “We’re out there to keep moose alive.”
If a trapper catches and kills a moose in a snare, regulations require the trapper to pull all his or her traps for a one-quarter mile radius around the dead moose.
Gardner, who has worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for nearly 30 years, probably knows more about snaring moose than anyone. As part of his research into developing a breakaway snare for moose and caribou, Gardner spent several days at the Kenai Moose Research Center on the Kenai Peninsula setting snares for captive moose.
“I built a ton of snares and caught a ton of moose and watched how they worked those snares,” Gardner said.
Moose get caught in wolf snares two ways — by the foot after they step into a snare that has been knocked down and by the nose when they stick their snouts into snares while browsing for food.
Moose don’t actually step into a wolf snare set, Gardner said. Instead, they usually knock the snare down with their head or chest as they move through the woods, and the snare falls flat onto the surface of the snow, creating what Gardner calls “a perfect Venus flytrap” in the form of a 6- to 15-inch loop.
With the snare flat on the snow, the moose usually steps into the snare with its back foot. In his research, Gardner said 75 percent of the moose he caught in snares were initially caught by the hind foot.
“We were always wondering how moose got caught by the hind foot,” Gardner said.
If the snare is not equipped with a stop mechanism that prevents it from cinching down or a breakaway mechanism, it cinches down on the moose’s leg as soon as the moose steps forward.
Moose get caught by the nose as they walk through the woods or when they are browsing, Gardner said.
“If they’re just traveling or browsing, their head is pretty low, right where a wolf snare is,” he said.
If a moose sticks its nose in a snare and then pulls its head straight up, the snare will cinch down on the moose’s nose.
“I call it setting the hook,” Gardner said, referring to the familiar fishing term.
The biologist said he observed moose in Kenai while they were browsing and he was amazed at how infrequently moose were caught by the nose, considering how often they could have been. The moose continually stuck their noses in snares while feeding and didn’t get caught, in large part because they could care less if a cable snare is sliding up and down their noses.
“As long as they don’t pull back their heads, the snare rolls up and down the nose, and they don’t get caught,” Gardner said. “The difference between a moose being caught by the nose and not being caught by the nose is pretty fine.”
Whether a moose gets caught by the leg or nose, it’s essentially a dead moose if the snare is not equipped with a breakaway mechanism, Gardner said.
“This cable can hold cars,” Gardner said, holding up a snare made of 7/64-inch steel cable, one of three common cable sizes used by wolf trappers. “Basically if you catch something, it’s going to hold it.”
Once a snare is cinched tight on a moose’s leg or nose, it will cut the circulation off and the foot or nose freezes.
That’s where the breakaway system Gardner developed comes in. Gardner designed a snare that incorporates a metal ferrule crimped onto the snare to serve as a stop, which prevents the snare cable from cinching down past a certain point, in this case an inch or two bigger than a moose’s leg, but cinches down enough to choke a wolf.
“We had to figure out where to put (the stop) so it still kills wolves by neck, but stops soon enough so it doesn’t cause damage to a moose’s leg,” Gardner said. “If it doesn’t hold a wolf, what good is it?”
Gardner collected moose legs from hunters on the Tanana Flats to determine the average size of a moose leg between the knee and hoof, where they are most likely to get caught.
Then he collected measurements of wolves’ necks taken by local trapper and fur tanner Al Barrette to determine the average size of a wolf’s neck.
The average size of a wolf’s neck is 12 1/2 inches, and the average size of a moose’s leg is 8 inches. By placing the stop mechanism 10 inches from the lock, it prevents the snare from cinching down on a moose’s leg, giving the moose time to break free without freezing its foot, but it will choke and kill a wolf before hitting the stop.
The ferrule also serves as a breakaway mechanism because Gardner cuts the cable and then crimps both ends into the ferrule at a poundage strong enough that a moose or caribou can break loose but a wolf cannot.
Using a hydraulic jack and a scale, Gardner then measured how much poundage was required to break different snares he built. He enlisted the help of two local trappers to determine how much poundage was required to kill wolves efficiently but allow moose to pull the cable apart at the ferrule. The number he arrived at was 350 pounds, or two crimps with a swager.
Unfortunately, breakaway snares don’t work on nose catches because moose caught by the nose don’t put up a fight, Gardner said. The snare is the equivalent of a metal ring in a steer’s nose, Gardner said.
“It hurts,” he said. “If you catch a moose by the nose, it’s a dead moose. (The snare cable) cinches uptight and the nose freezes quick.
“Even if you release them, they die,” Gardner said.
Help from trappers
It was former Fairbanks trapper Ron Long, who has since died, who first approached the department about developing a breakaway snare for moose.
“He came in the office one day and said, ‘I’ll tell you right now trappers are catching moose, most don’t get free and we need to find a better way,’” Gardner said. “He really bugged us.”
Throughout the years, other trappers, such as Masek, Al Barrette, Jim Walters and Click Bishop, offered advice to Gardner. It was Bishop, the state’s labor commissioner who likes to trap wolves in his spare time, who came up with the idea of incorporating a small S-hook between the end of the snare loop and the lock as a breakaway device. The S-hook is strong enough to hold a choking wolf but a moose or caribou can pull the S-hook straight. Using Bishop’s S-hook design combined with the ferrule breakaway provides two breakaway mechanisms.
“A lot of these ideas came from trappers,” Gardner said. “You have to have a snare that trappers will support for it to work.”
The next step is to develop a snare that prevents nose catches on moose, Gardner said. Gardner has experimented with a snare that has proved effective, but he hasn’t really started pushing it yet.
The snare features an 11-gauge “diverter wire” that the snare hangs from and which guides a moose’s nose away from the snare. During his research with captive moose at the moose research center, Gardner said not one of the 42 moose that encountered his diverter snares were caught by the nose and the snares were knocked down 95 percent of the time.
The snares performed well in field tests, too. The two private trappers he recruited for his project found that the snares successfully caught wolves and were 100 percent effective in preventing nose catches. Trappers saw no evidence that wolves shied away from the diverter snares, he said.
“It takes another step to make, and they’re more cumbersome to set but they work,” Gardner said of the diverter wire snares.
Proposals that would require breakaway snares for wolf trapping in Alaska have been brought before the Alaska Board of Game before, but they were rejected, Gardner said. The only place in Alaska where breakaway snares are mandatory is the Kenai Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge, he said.
The Alaska Trappers Association, based in Fairbanks, endorses the use of breakaway snares and does its best to educate trappers through clinics such as the one two weeks ago, ATA president Randy Zarnke said.
But the ATA stops short of when it comes to requiring all trappers to use them, he said.
“We think they’re a good idea and we encourage all of our members to use them, but we don’t like the idea of making them mandatory,” Zarnke said.
Barrette, who traps off the Elliott Highway north of Fairbanks, said he has released about eight moose during his trapping career and he doesn’t ever want to do it again, which is why he switched to breakaway snares two years ago. An incident with an angry cow moose he successfully released from a snare several years ago left him scarred for life, he said.
“After I cut her out, she ran me down,” Barrette said. “I thought for sure she was going to stomp me into the ground.”
While Barrette doesn’t think breakaway snares should be mandatory for trappers in Alaska, he said anything a trapper can do to avoid catching — and potentially killing — a moose is a good thing.
“I’ve killed a few moose in my trapping years, and for as many wolves as I’ve caught, I try to justify it but it’s a bad catch,” he said.
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.