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Alaska Supreme Court upholds Valdez ordinance that limited fur trapping

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Alaska Supreme Court upholds Valdez ordinance that limited fur trapping

May 12, 2024 | 10:05 pm ET
By James Brooks
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Alaska Supreme Court upholds Valdez ordinance that limited fur trapping
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The Alaska Supreme Court is seen on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Juneau. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the city of Valdez in a lawsuit that challenged the bounds of municipal authority within the state.

In a unanimous decision issued Friday, the court upheld a municipal trapping ordinance that banned fur trapping in certain parts of town in order to protect people and pets from traps.

That decision has broader effects. Many other municipalities, including Anchorage, have rules that limit trapping. A decision against Valdez could have affected those rules as well.

The lawsuit was brought by the Alaska Trappers Association and the National Trappers Association, which argued that Valdez’s restriction was unconstitutional and illegal.

In written and oral arguments, the groups claimed that state law granted state officials, not municipal ones, authority over fish and game issues, and that the Legislature has delegated trapping authority to the state Board of Game.

Valdez argued that the city has the authority and responsibility to protect the health and safety of its residents, that trappers did not oppose the ordinance when it was passed, and that the state of Alaska itself publishes a trapping handbook that advises trappers to be aware of local regulations, an indication that the city’s move is allowable.

Valdez Superior Court Judge Rachel Ahrens ruled in favor of the city, and the trappers appealed to the state Supreme Court in 2021. The high court heard oral arguments in 2023.

Justice Susan Carney, writing on behalf of the court, said that a municipality can be forbidden from taking action if state law expressly or implicitly forbids that action.

The trappers didn’t argue that state law expressly prohibited the trapping ordinance, which left the justices to consider whether the state constitution — which requires the state to manage natural resources for sustained yield — or state law contains an implicit ban.

The trappers argued that the court should consider the ordinance to be a restriction on “natural resource management,” while Valdez argued that it should be considered an issue of public safety and land use.

That was a critical question, because the Alaska Constitution says that municipalities “shall provide for planning, platting, and land use regulation.”

When it came to trapping in Valdez, “We recognize that this is a close case, requiring that we balance two compelling constitutional grounds — home rule municipalities’ broad powers and state authority over natural resource management,” Carney wrote.

Ultimately, however, the evidence was weighted in favor of Valdez, the court said.

“The ordinance does not directly manage the taking of furbearers. It does not create open and closed seasons. It does not limit the number, size, or sex of animals taken. It may have an incidental effect on the number of furbearers taken in the same way prohibiting the discharge of a firearm within city limits has an incidental effect on hunting,” Carney wrote.

“Nothing in the statutory language suggests that other government entities are prohibited from enacting ordinances that affect trapping,” the decision said.