Tuesday, November 11, 2003

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Let other Girl Scouts make bird feeders out of bleach bottles and glue together little birch-bark canoes. Troop 34 in Alaska is learning to trap and skin beavers.

In a practice that has angered animal rights activists, the girls are killing the beavers as part of a state flood-management program.

“We think it sends a very, very bad message that when animals cause a problem, you kill them,” said Stephanie Boyles of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She said the Girl Scouts should teach children to become “stewards of wildlife, not abusers.”

Troop 34 leader Dona Boylan said she wanted to impart lessons in responsible game management to her members, who are city girls, at least by Alaska’s standards. Fairbanks is a city of nearly 30,000.

“Trapping may not be pretty, but the girls understand the seriousness and huge responsibility of taking a life,” Miss Boylan said. “They understand that when humans impact their environment, they become ultimately responsible for maintaining a healthy population of the animals they have to coexist with in these urban centers.”

Last spring, about 10 members of the Fairbanks troop and their families helped catch two beavers using a snare and lethal traps. The girls were taught how to find the animals’ dens and how to lay the traps. Working under close supervision, the girls used knives to skin the beavers.

The troop had the pelts tanned and plans to make hats and mittens once a dozen hides are collected. The girls also want to cook beaver meat. They plan to begin setting traps again this month.

Officials at the Girl Scouts’ New York headquarters did not return repeated calls. But in a Sept. 16 letter to PETA, spokeswoman Courtney Shore said the organization does not promote trapping or hunting and does not offer merit badges for those activities.

Miss Shore noted that Troop 34, made up of 13 girls ages 10 to 12, participated after an invitation from the state Department of Fish and Game.

“It is understandable why the troop responded positively when approached by a state authority to conduct an activity that is commonplace in that area of the country,” Miss Shore wrote.

The state-run Take a Kid Trapping program is aimed at controlling floods and other damage caused by an expanding beaver population along the lower Chena River in Fairbanks. It is open to children as young as 7.

Alaskan Girl Scout leaders said the program is a “nonissue” in Fairbanks, where trapping has a long history. They said none of the girls would talk to reporters.

“I feel like PETA doesn’t have a concept that trapping is considered a heritage here in Alaska,” said Mike McDougall, a trapper who worked with the scouts. “These kids are learning more than just how to take an animal. They’re learning about ecology. They also got a definite sense of respect for the animals.”

The program is helping to curb a burgeoning population of the large rodents, which in Alaska can weigh up to 70 pounds. Their growing numbers are attributed to recent warm winters and a drop in commercial trapping.

“Beavers are a valuable source of education for our young people,” said Tom Seaton, a state Fish and Game biologist. “Their carcasses can be used in many ways — for food, for warm garments. Almost everything about beavers is good except when they flood your yard or knock down live trees.”

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