Who tried to strangle Pogo? The story of a hunting dog and a wire noose

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
The state GF&P Commission will b considering tougher snare regulations

Pogo might have died that day, just doing what she did best — snuffling around for pheasants on a patch of public-hunting ground.

What she found instead of a rooster while she was hustling down a game trail just a quarter mile or so from the truck was a well-anchored wire loop that closed tight around her neck when she accidentally ran into it.

The snare was set on that game trail on a public-hunting area near Miller, where Pogo and I went for a later-in-the season hunt a quarter century ago or so.

Later in the pheasant season is when you’re most likely to run into a snare on public land. That’s because later in the season, as in winter, is when pelts are prime and trappers are busy.

I found myself looking back at that unnerving experience with Pogo and the snare last Friday, as I listened to members of the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission discuss with GF&P staff the notion of further restricting the use of snares on public land, at least east of the Missouri River.

I like that notion. But then I have a dog in the fight. The one I have in it these days is Rosie, no relation to Pogo except in the broad gene line of English springer spaniels bred for the field, not for the show or the couch.

Rosie has the same olfactory gifts that Pogo possessed, with slightly less neurosis. And let’s stop a moment to admire Pogo’s neurosis, shall we? She was a bit of a recluse, eschewing the company of other dogs, especially silly ones, in favor of a select group of human beings, including children in the Woster line and adults who shared her passion for upland birds.

Pogo didn't want much to do with much else in life, besides her Purina. And she was suspicious of most people and most of the world, as she understood it, and of strange shapes in particular. She once refused to enter an area of public land I wanted to hunt because there was a black, plastic leaf bag caught on the fence near the parking area. The wind was lifting and twisting the bag, causing it to flutter and inflate into odd shapes above the fence.

A springer with a creative imagination could turn that into a goblin.

Pogo saw it, stopped, growled, woofed, whined and then went slinking hunched over and coyote like in a half circle back to the truck. There she sulked with head cocked sideways and watched with a look of concern as I walked to the fence, pulled the bag out of the wire, bunched it up and stuck it in my game bag, all the while mumbling an unflattering appraisal of her performance.

Fence goblin gone. Hunt resumed.

Rosie gets spooked by odd shapes, too, but she's easier than Pogo was to talk back to her senses. Rosie isn’t nearly as meticulous and even, dare I say, analytical in the field as Pogo was. Pogo seemed to consider the odds and angles and potential liabilities of a patch of cover as she approached it, choosing her entrance with purpose and care. Far stronger and more athletic, Rosie hits the hard stuff at full speed, and keeps slamming into it for hours.

She can find birds. Oh, Lord, she can. But I worry that the outcome of a snare encounter with such a hard-charging dog might turn out differently, and not in a good way.

All of which came to mind as I lingered in the commission meeting and considered the regulation of snares on public land. They’ve been regulated before. But a couple of relatively recent incidents reported by hunters — dogs caught in snares — on public land brought the issue up again, possibly for some fine tuning of the regulations.

Commissioners were told by staff that GF&P doesn’t get many complaints from bird hunters about snares. I’d guess that’s true. Maybe it's because they rarely cause a problem with dogs, or maybe because most hunters simply remove the snare and hunt on, without complaining to anyone. I complained, as I recall. But I’m a complainer. What can I say?

I can’t remember who I talked to at GF&P back then. But I relayed the details of that day on the state Game Production Area -- I think, although it might have been a Waterfowl Production Area, too --  south of Miller. Or maybe south of Ree Heights. Somewhere over there. Wherever, I found out the snare was legal, even if dangerous to a dog.

The GPA included substantial cattail slough that could be great hunting once it froze up. Pogo and I were working the edge of cattails in slough grass when I lost track of her. So I called. Then I blew the whistle. Then I called again. Then I walked out of the cattails and deeper cover onto a little rise, to look around the area. Still no sign of her.

Ten minutes of searching later I found her lying on the game trail. Oddly, she barely moved when I walked up, though her abbreviated tail wagged just a little. I thought she was hurt or sick. Then I noticed the uncommon angle of her head and saw a wire loop pulled up snug around her neck. Very snug, in fact. Dangerously snug, it seemed to me.

The loop was anchored in ground, as I recall.  Details are hazy in my memory. But I think I figured out that the wire loop was actually a snare that had been set by a trapper, most likely for coyotes. I think I pulled up an anchor stake and worked to remove the wire from Pogo’s neck.

I would later learn that snares are easy to release and remove in such situations. They have a logically configured release that, I’m told, only an idiot couldn’t figure out.

Suppose I told you I couldn’t figure it out. Would you be nice?

As I recall, I finally gave up and carried Pogo back to the truck (fortunately not that far away), where I found some fishing pliers and managed to cut the wire. Pogo was mildly outraged by the whole process. And so was I.

But my outrage turned to exasperation when I realized my shotgun was somewhere back in the slough grass near the spot on the game trail where Pogo met the snare.

“Shucks,” I said, or words thereabouts.

 So we hiked back and tried to resume the hunt. But Pogo was unusually cautious, obsessively cautious, sometimes hardly able to proceed. And I was spooked about her running into another snare. Suddenly I wondered how many were out there.

It’s safe to say, I think, that we both lost heart for that hunt at that spot. So we left early, without birds, but with a bit of an attitude about the placement of snares on public ground where hunting dogs romp and run.

I would get some perspective on that as the months and years passed. And I got some more at the commission meeting last week, and from a follow-up conversation with Keith Fisk, administrator of GF&P’s wildlife damage program in Pierre.

Snares are effective in the field and are considered humane as a form of trap, Fisk said. That’s because coyotes can't help but struggle against them, which makes the wire constrict, which makes the coyote struggle more, and usually the cycle ends quickly.

Why didn’t Pogo end that way? I had assumed it was her intelligence and contemplative demeanor. Fisk said however, that Pogo’s reaction to the snare is pretty common among hunting dogs in similar situations.

Some dogs caught in snares have died, however. I read about a situation up near Minot, N.D., in 2016 where two dogs were snared, and one died. In 2013, Montana outdoors writer Chuck Robbins wrote about a similarly lethal encounter between a dog and a snare during an Idaho chukar hunt.

Those are relatively rare when compared to all the dog-snare encounters that occur, Fisk said.

“Most dogs that get captured, it’s like somebody gave them a sharp tug on the leash and they would just sit down and wait for the owner,” he said. “If a dog gets in a snare, it probably has felt pressure on its neck before, on a leash or chain.”

It’s a different thing with the coyote.

“They’re wild animals, so they fight the snare, which makes it more effective,” Fisk said. “It cuts off the air supply and dispatches them relatively quickly.”

Snares are as cheap as they are effective, compared to other types of traps. And they work better in the frozen conditions of winter, when the ground is hard and scraping out an indention and covering a traditional trap is difficult.

I understand all that. And I understand the value of reasonable predator control, although its value to wildlife propagation is slight compared to habitat and other factors. I also understand the concept of public land and its many different users and interest groups, including trappers. Still, I was upset when Pogo ended up in that snare. And other hunters have been upset in similar situations.

Upset people usually get word to the commission, which sets policy for GF&P. And contacts resulted in a discussion before the commission. It didn’t hurt, either, that Commissioner Cathy Peterson of Salem saw a snare at work when a human being was snagged by one in a road right-of-way near her farm. No injuries to the human, other than wounded pride.

That dog, too, was OK after the snare was removed. But Peterson said the incident reinforced her support for more consideration of the snare issue by commissioners. What emerged was a proposal for more regulation of snares on public land east of the Missouri River but, interestingly enough, less on public land west of the river, where snare-dog encounters are least common.

Which concerns me a little, because these days I do most of my pheasant hunting on public land west of the river. And I hunt throughout the season, wind, snow, cold or blow, with a dog that loves the cold and assaults cover like none I've ever had.  I also understand that the East River public ground is busier than our land out this way, but also remind commissioners that some of the state's best pheasant ground is West River, out closer the Missouri where I grew up.

And there are pretty good patches near Martin, and Elsewhere.

But since only a small portion of public land west of the Missouri River has pheasants, figuring out which ones would be covered would be tougher than either the blanket coverage there is now or the removal being proposed.

Currently snares aren’t allowed on most public-hunting ground and improved road right-of-way corridors statewide between May 1 and Nov. 14. The proposal would eliminate that restriction entirely west of the river but expand the closure on snares East River public land, including improved right=of-way corridors, from May 1 through the end of the pheasant season, which is typically the first Sunday in January.

Snares would also have to be marked with the owner's identity or a number identifying the owner to Game, Fish & Parks officials. The idea is that the best of the trapping season is winter, when pelts are at their best, so the expanded snare prohibition wouldn’t have a big impact on trappers if it ended in early January.

The idea is also that IDs on the snares help assure responsible use, although Fisk argues that most trappers use their snares responsibly.

Fisk is working up that proposal now, for review by the commission and release to the public.

My guess is trappers won’t be nearly as happy about the proposal — and that’s all it is now, a proposal, with a public comment period and public hearing yet to come — as I am. One And I’m willing to hear what they have to say. Word I get so far from the trapping community is a tendency to accept the expanded closure period on public land but to argue against it on roads and improved right-of-way lines.

You can expect them as well to promote the value of predator control to game birds on public lands. So there's plenty more in this conversation to come.

For now, if you’ve got a story about dogs and snares, I’d like to hear it.

Oh, and if you have a story about dogs and plastic bags flapping on the fence, I’d love to hear it.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.