Iditarod to tighten race trail security, rewrite “gag rule”

A musher on the trail between Koyukuk and Unalakleet (Photo: KNOM, 2015).

The Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) is taking steps to tighten security along the race route in the near future.

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Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George says the board and staff are considering adding security cameras at the Nome dog lot, as well as at the White Mountain and Unalakleet checkpoints:

“Based on last year’s experience, these two checkpoints are extremely active,” St. George said. “There’s a lot of folks that come in and out of Unalakleet, especially during this race.”

St. George says other strategies are in the works, as well:

“This is just the beginning. We’re not talking about, ‘This is what we’re going to do, and that’s it.’ We’re looking at a number of different protocols that we can deploy in the future,” St. George said. “This year, for instance, you will see, more visibly, individuals who are boots on the ground that will be monitoring our dog lots.”

This discussion comes after the ITC’s announcement in October that four dogs on four-time champion Dallas Seavey’s team tested positive for the prohibited painkiller tramadol at the end of the 2017 race. It was the first time a positive drug test had been returned in Iditarod history.

The ITC changed the race drug-use policy following the positive test, shifting the burden of proof to the musher if there is a positive result. Seavey has denied he gave his dogs tramadol and alleged that foul play was involved, calling for better race security.

In the wake of the announcement, the Iditarod Official Finishers Club (IOFC) issued a statement calling for several changes to Iditarod race rules. Among those was a more comprehensive drug policy, including the withholding of prize money in the event of a positive test. St. George says the board also discussed such a policy at its regular meeting December 1st:

“The board of directors is looking at working on the mechanics of that protocol, how that will look,” St. George said. “When the need arises, and when the opportunity arises to move on action items, I’m sure this board will come together and make that happen.”

No action items related to the drug-use policy were brought forward at the December 1stmeeting. But Wade Marrs, who’s president of the IOFC and sits on the Iditarod Board as the musher representative, says Rule 53 is in the process of being rewritten. The so-called “gag rule” has been criticized by mushers and the IOFC.

“The gag rule was intended to make sure that we didn’t bash sponsors, or bash one another, or bash the race publicly, which is totally understandable,” Marrs said. “But our main worry as mushers was we had to be able to call the board or staff out on issues. So they’re rewriting for the proper wordage on making sure those things are known.”

Marrs says he’s happy with the progress that’s been made on the issues raised recently. He says the IOFC, board and staff held a closed-door meeting in November to discuss concerns:

“Some of the thoughts were heeded, some of the thoughts were productive, some of the thoughts were non-productive, so it went both ways, quite a bit,” Marrs said. “But it was an interesting meeting, and I think it was good to have everything aired out and have everybody know what page each group is on.”

The 2018 Iditarod begins on March 3rd in Anchorage. 69 mushers are currently signed up.

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