Furry foul: Ocean Shores could flip trapping ban following dog rescuer citation

Live trapping for lost dogs puts animals and people in danger, wildlife official warns

Trapping animals has long been outlawed in Ocean Shores, but the city council might be working toward a solution to change that.

Lost dogs, not furbearers, are the target.

While wildlife officials fear the ordinance will exasperate the strained relationship between residents and critters of the beach town, endangering both parties, it would allow a community hero to continue the work that returned dozens of runaway dogs to their owners — and has her facing criminal charges.

City council members Tuesday evening indicated a willingness to soften the city’s strict ban on trapping but wanted to go back to the drawing board, tabling a proposed rule change to allow the practice for lost pets and rodents.

“What we’re trying to do with this ordinance is to sort of thread a needle,” City Administrator Scott Andersen told the council April 9. “We know that people love their pets and they want them returned safely, and that Ocean Shores is not a safe environment because of wildlife. On the other hand, we want to make sure if we’re retrieving those pets, we’re doing it in a safe a responsible manner that’s not putting wildlife in danger.”

Dog rescuer becomes an outlaw

Vivian Dahlin’s online professional profile describes her job as an “at-large dog trapper.”

Compelled by an affinity for animals, Dahlin retired to Ocean Shores and founded “Operation Dog Rescue” in 2009. She estimated she has returned about 50 dogs to their owners since then.

Community groups have commended Dahlin for her work, and many have testified that Dahlin is the reason they were reunited with a pet.

Throw nets and hand signals sometimes work to secure the runaways. But the most effective method, especially for skittish animals, Dahlin said, is baiting them into a cage with food.

That may be Kentucky Fried Chicken, dog food or other smelly items.

In May of 2023, Dahlin got a call about an escaped dog named Gracie, who had dug through the dirt underneath a fence.

“It was very clear early on nobody was going to be able to hand capture her,” Dahlin said.

Using sightings from different neighborhoods, Dahlin tracked Gracie to the northeastern part of the peninsula to a wooded area near the municipal airport. She set up a cage trap with dog food inside and set up her usual game camera to monitor any activity, hoping to see Gracie.

Checking the live feed on July 22, Dahlin found a different furry mammal — two bear cubs.

Driving from Westport, a state wildlife officer, Lanny McOmber, arrived at the scene an hour and a half later. Gazing through the brush, he observed outside the trap a “very large black bear” — the cubs’ mother.

“They’re unpredictable” in that situation, said Scott Harris, local wildlife conflict specialist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, who was off-duty July 22. “If she feels that cub is threatened, that could change the whole situation.”

After talking with another officer, McOmber phoned a professional houndsman with dogs to attempt to scare away the bear. As a precaution, he told bystanders to leave, nearby residents to stay in their homes, and loaded his department-issued shotgun.

Four hours after the cubs were first seen in the trap, barking from the hounds forced the large bear away “reluctantly” and the cubs were released and seemingly reunited with their mother.

No animals or people were harmed. But McOmber wrote in a later report “the incident could have turned into a serious human safety conflict for people in the area” and “could have resulted in one or more of the bears being euthanized.”

Ocean Shores Code Enforcement Officer Shaun Beebe, who arrived after being contacted by the state officer, cited Dahlin for violating the city’s trapping ordinance and state reckless endangerment law, defined as conduct that “creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another person.” According to incident reports, Beebe had told Dahlin previously that trapping was illegal.

City code blanketly prohibits trapping “of any nature whatsoever” within the city limits, defining the activity as “very hazardous.” State law defines “unlawful trapping,” a misdemeanor, as setting a trap “capable of taking wild animals” without a license.

When citing Dahlin with trapping, Beebe listed another section of city code that stipulates any person who hunts “fur-bearing” animals with “any trapping device of any nature whatsoever” is guilty of a Class B offense. Proposed changes would not alter that section.

Dahlin said in an interview that she was aware of city ordinances outlawing the activity but believes they don’t apply to rescuing lost dogs since she wasn’t targeting wild animals.

“I’m using safe, humane methods to capture domestic dogs and cats. That’s it,” she said. “I don’t trap raccoons; I don’t trap coyotes. I don’t intentionally trap bears.”

During several of Dahlin’s appearances in municipal court, dozens of people held up photos of rescued dogs and cats to show their support. Dahlin successfully trapped Tom McCollow’s dog, Murphy, after the dog squirmed out of its harness on Point Brown Avenue.

“Vivian just did everything she could to help him out,” he said.

With the case still not settled, Council President Lisa Scott suggested the ordinance change wait until the case finishes up.

The wild side

The proposed ordinance would make two exceptions to the blanket trapping ban: For rodents and for the recovery of lost pets, or “nuisance animals.” The rule proposed Tuesday suggested allowing a designated trapper or pet owner to place baited cages on their property or other private property with the permission of the owner, moving traps every three days and monitoring them with cameras.

Under current law, not even the city’s animal control officer has the authority to trap animals, said OSPD Deputy Chief Kyle Watson. If police receive a lost dog report, an officer may go to the area and see if hand capture is possible.

An attorney advising the city on the ordinance told the council Tuesday the proposed ordinance would not permit anything not allowed under state law.

But Harris, the wildlife conflict biologist, told the council in public comment that the language didn’t align with state rules around trapping. He voiced safety concerns for the public and officers tasked with mediating wildlife interaction.

Even as development fills the Ocean Shores peninsula, wooded lots, parks, free food and safety continues to draw in deer, bears, coyotes, cougars and others. Harris has worked to educate the public on securing food sources and the dangers of feeding wildlife — an act the city banned in 2018.

Any bait that dogs like, other animals do, too, Harris said.

“You cannot set a trap for a lost dog or a lost cat without capturing wildlife,” he said in an interview.

In public comment, David Linn, a founding member of nonprofit Washington Wildlife First, said wildlife are held in trust for the public by the government, and said unregulated trapping is “dangerous, reckless and irresponsible.” He expressed concern that traps would not discriminate between dogs and wild animals.

At the same time, the number of lost pets that need rescuing continues to grow, Councilor Denise Siers said Tuesday. City code limits pet ownership to three dogs and three cats. It also prohibits owners from allowing pets to become “nuisance animals,” which includes runaway dogs.

Multiple councilors commended the lost dog service Dahlin provided by the community. During public comment, resident Lillian Broadbent suggested the city issue a limited number of trapping permits to select individuals trained to carry out lost dog rescue.

Councilors suggested involving state wildlife officials, city’s code enforcement and trappers like Dahlin in future conversations about trapping rules as they try to walk the line of saving beloved pets without ensnaring trouble.

“We all choose to live here in a place that is very wildlife dense,” Councilor Lisa Griebel said Tuesday. “With that comes a responsibility of living in balance with our wildlife. I often hear from our community that that’s why they chose to live here is because of our wildlife. We have a duty to preserve our wildlife and treat it respectfully. I would not want to have any sort of change to a code that would actually make our balance with that worse.”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.