Southeast Wild: On dogs, trails and wildlife: Can we all just get along?

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2004

As a disclaimer, I should tell you first that I love dogs, especially our little dachshund Benjamin.

We're also proud to have Guinness, a chocolate Labrador retriever in our family. His owner has invested countless hours over the past few years and now is a trained and certified SEADOG handler. We're very proud of her and Guinness. Having said that, let's talk about our local trails, beaches and the groups of fine folks that use them.

Juneau, more than most communities in Southeast, has a plethora of wonderful trails within easy reach. They are very popular and in season are heavily used. These trails provide a variety of values to the different groups that use them.

It is in these values that we often find the conflict.

Like the perennial conflict between cross-country skiers and snowmachine aficionados, trail users have two conflicting groups: dog walkers and wildlife viewers. Some of our trails are excellent for wildlife viewing, at the same time lending themselves to quality dog walking.

Let's use the Juneau Airport dike trail as a good example of one that is extremely important to each group.

I, along with many other birders, have been situated in a sheltered spot off the airport dike trail with spotting scopes and digital cameras, waiting for that perfect moment to capture a rare image of a cinnamon teal sleeping in the tall grass. Just short of the precise moment to capture the once-in-a-lifetime image, a lusty Labrador retriever bounds over the bank into the water chasing a tennis ball that was tossed in that direction by its owner.

The perfect moment is gone, forever, in many cases. As you mutter under your breath, "the damn sign at the start of the trail says all dogs must be on a leash," you pack up your gear and move on, hoping to get lucky again some other day. The dog owner meant no malice, nor did the dog, I am sure.

Speaking of the leash sign, one day I ran into a longtime friend who is a heavy user of the dike trail and prominent member of the Juneau Audubon Society. She told me the sign does not really mean what it says. She says what it really means is that "your dog must be under your control," and leashes are not required. Hmmm. Really?

But if the leash rule is really meant, then how could you possibly take your dog out on the dike trail and have some quality play time? Labrador retrievers, in particular, were born to chase tennis balls. It is something they just have to do.

The dike trail perhaps gives us the best example of serious conflicts with different user groups, but it occurs on many other Juneau trails as well.

A serious conflict was luckily averted last fall near the Dredge Lake trail system, where a mother black bear and her cub settled in. The black bears were brown in color so many thought they were brown bears, generating undue fear. The bears were used to people walking through their territory, but loose dogs created a serious problem as the bears thought they were a dire threat. This caused aggressive action on the part of the mother bear and it was taken to be threatening to the humans in the area as well. Both bears could have unnecessarily lost their lives to the authorities under the guise of protecting the human interests. Happily, this did not happen.

I recently encountered four partially eaten deer carcasses on north Douglas Island in three different trail locations. Canine footprints in the snow surrounded each of the fresh kills. Loose running dogs have been observed frequenting the area; a sad ending for the struggling deer.

I think all groups can and should be fairly accommodated on our trail system, but perhaps a set of rules or guidelines should be established.

Maybe some areas could be set aside for dog owners where leashes are not required at all. Sandy Beach certainly would be top on the list. Other trails and beaches could be set aside for wildlife viewing where dog activity would be under strict control with leashes mandatory.

I think we have adequate room for all user groups without conflict. What are needed are some thoughtful rules, followed by strict enforcement.

With that, I think we can all get along.

• Matt Kirchhoff, Alaska Department of Fish and Game non-game biologist for Southeast Alaska, will present a slide show on proposed research projects for non-game species when Juneau Audubon Society meets at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 8) in the Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School library. Contact the Juneau Audubon Society at http://www.juneau-audubon-society.org.



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