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When Out On the Trail, Leave Your Dog Behind

No matter how sweet, our furry friends pose a significant threat to wildlife

There’s a reason many nature lovers own dogs. As an often-solo female hiker, I enjoy the added security, the pleasure of being alone without being totally alone, and the joy of watching my dog bound down the trail or jump into a mountain lake with an abandon I cannot usually muster.

photo of dog running on trailPhoto by Mitchel Jones A dog frolics in Joaquin Miller Park in California. Unfortunately, bringing dogs on the trail with you can be a bad idea.

The fact that most of the pristine outdoor locations in our nation (and in my home state of California) don’t welcome dogs has always been a disappointment, and like many dog owners, I’ve taken my dog into forbidden park territory fairly regularly. It was easy to convince myself the "No Dogs on Trail" signs didn't really apply to me. After all, my rescue mutt looks nothing like the cute little terrier silhouette crossed out on the sign. What’s the harm of just one well-behaved dog? It helped that during my decade of occasional dog trespassing, I was never once confronted by a ranger.

Then last September, I became a volunteer with the mounted patrol team in the Marin Headlands, the section of Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) north of San Francisco. One of my duties during my weekly one-to-two hour horseback patrol is to confront visitors breaking the dog rules, by either allowing their dog to run around off-leash in an on-leash section, or by hiking on-leash in a dog-free section of the park. On some two-hour rides, I see no rule-breakers. Sometimes I see five or six. As a volunteer, I can’t issue a citation, but most rule-breakers are still apologetic and embarrassed. Occasionally someone will become confrontational, using the incident as an excuse to complain about the injustice of dog laws. “After all,” one said, “your horse is pooping everywhere, too.” 

But what I’ve learned during my work here is there are valid reasons why having dogs on the trail with you can be a bad idea. 

For starters, dogs are predators by nature and they often mark their territory in order to keep competitors away. This scent marking can infringe on the terrain of wide-ranging wild predator species such as mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats, and interrupt essential contiguous wildlife corridors.

“Carnivore species as a group show a strong aversion to trailheads where dog use and waste is most concentrated,” says National Park Service wildlife ecologist Bill Merkle. “This effect is strongly reduced in areas on trails away from trailheads, and not present in trailheads where dogs are not allowed.” 

“As conservationists, we looked to single species conservation for a long time, but we’re a little more knowledgeable about the need for healthy habitat stretches,” says GGNRA public affairs and dog management specialist Adrienne  Freeman. “They’re important for the animals to thrive.”

 Dogs that run loose can also harass or kill park wildlife. Deer, birds, rabbits and other animals are sometimes chased and killed by off-leash pets. For example, there are reports of dogs chasing white-tailed deer and ground-nesting birds, and in Connecticut, an off-leash German shepherd killed two fox pups outside a nature reserve in 2010. California dogs have been known to kill endangered bighorn sheep and snowy plovers. Last August, off-leash dogs killed a great blue heron that frequented the arboretum at Harvard University.

Even when dogs are unsuccessful in catching the wildlife they chase, the potential prey has had to expend significant energy in order to save their life. Often this means they are left too exhausted and weak to escape other wild predators. This is especially true in the case of pregnant wildlife and newborn animals.

Unruly pets can also trample, scratch, and dig up vegetation and leave behind waste (read: poop), which can transmit disease to wildlife or spread invasive plant seed.

Dogs themselves are often at risk of being injured or killed in parks by coyotes, mountain lions, and even deer. They have been known to get caught in traps set by hunters in some forested areas or fall down crevices and steep hillsides.

Also, many dog breeds aren’t adapted to hiking — their paws often get torn up and since they sweat through their feet, they can overheat. Last year, off-leash dogs had to be rescued from Volcanoes, Acadia, Kenai Fjords and Yellowstone national parks. 

America’s national and state parks are increasingly imposing leash laws and restrictions on bringing pets along. In fact, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, or GGNRA, bears the distinction of being the most dog-friendly national park in the country, and the only one containing designated off-leash areas for dogs. Other national parks allow dogs only in campgrounds or on paved roads with limited access to hiking trails.

When the GGNRA was established in 1972, it attempted to appease the strong off-leash dog community that already existed in the area, and in 1979, established a pet policy that provided the guidelines for current trail restrictions. Despite these guidelines, rangers here issue between 200 and 400 dog-related citations a year, that’s not even counting violators in the most remote areas of the park.

“People are less likely to comply in places like that,” says Freeman. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere, so you think, ‘What could the impact possibly be?’ It’s very hard to come up with numbers because a lot of times when we get the call, we hear it after the fact.”

In 2002, that the park set out to put a comprehensive, detailed dog law on the books — a plan which they hope to solidify by the end of this year. The 15-year environmental planning process has attempted to balance a variety of ecological and cultural factors — including habitat restoration, endangered species protection, and recreation — to create a clearer and thus more enforceable law. The proposed rule is currently open for public comment until the end of May, and is drawing heated criticism from Bay Area dog owners.

“Nobody is trying to ban dogs,” countered Freeman. “We’ve fought long and hard to keep them as part of the landscape.”

Ecologist Bill Merkle said the new plan takes into account the potential effect of dog walking on carnivore species and creates larger swaths of uninterrupted habitat.  

There’s also the issue of protecting the park’s 37 endangered species, all but two of which were discovered after the park was created, and most of which are shore birds, a popular target for off-leash dogs on the beach. 

They’re really fun to chase,” said Freeman. “[But] Peer-reviewed science is very clear as far as how dogs affect them.”

It is as much a matter of volume as it is one of egregious behavior. Visitation to our state and national parks is at an all-time high. GGNRA, for instance, has seen its annual visitors increase from 1.4 million a year in 1972 to 17.5 million. If even 10 percent of these visitors brought their dogs on the trail, that would mean 1.75 million dogs potentially impacting wildlife at the park.

Still, it’s hard to see yourself as part of the problem, even when you are watching your dog happily bolt toward a pack of sea birds on the beach. Oakland resident Julie Bruins, who received an off-leash citation at NGGRA’s Ocean Beach several years ago, admits she still allows her dog off leash there and elsewhere, and described her stance with mixture of guilt and resignation. 

“I always feel bad, but the happiest thing in the world is seeing your dog at the beach,” she said. “It feels bad to make the dogs suffer. Seeing this creature so uncontrollably happy and free is just the best.”

I understand the struggle. 

As someone who considers myself both a conservationist and a responsible dog owner, it’s easy to overlook the effects that even a quiet, on-leash canine can have on wildlife and habitat. Every time I spot someone breaking the rules, I understand they probably care about conservation as much as I do. But though it might feel on some quiet days that my dog and I, or my horse and I, are the only ones in a park, it’s important to remember that we are not.  

Jessi Phillips
Jessi Phillips is a freelance writer and musician who lives in Oakland, California.

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