Fowl play

Migrating birds looking to rest on the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge face disruption, pressure

Posted: Friday, April 23, 2010

When it comes to real-world drama, migrating birds have a story line similar to the Discovery Channel's "Survivor Man" or "Man vs. Wild." Mid-journey they face off against all that Mother Nature and mankind have to offer.

Photo By Bob Armstrong
Photo By Bob Armstrong

That's how Kevin O'Malley, a local naturalist, describes the turmoil thousands of birds endure to complete their seasonal trek.

"To get from one place to another, it's a major drama," he said. "It's the ultimate in real life television."

Some travel up to 24,000 miles and O'Malley said certain birds, like the Arctic Tern, will lose up to a quarter or half of their body weight.

It seems fitting then, that once these birds find a suitable place to rest, that's just what they should be able to do.

But O'Malley, who is also a dog owner, said that's not what he's witnessed lately on the Dike Trail adjacent to the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge.

"I did my own observation," he said. "When a dog comes up to the shoreline, even if it's a well behaved dog, it will flush the ducks or shorebirds in that area. They'll take flight and come back, probably."

He said that's not such a big deal, the first time.

"But then you have the next person that comes by, and the same thing happens," he said. "That's when it becomes a big deal for the birds."

Others in the community echo his story.

Bob Armstrong, is also a dog owner and has spent countless hours on the wetlands studying and photographing birds. He said he would never consider taking her to the wetlands while not on a leash.

"Usually when I'm out there, I'll always see dogs chasing birds," he said. "Often people are unaware that their dog is doing it. In my opinion, dogs chasing birds or disrupting birds on the Mendenhall Wetlands is one of the biggest threats to birds right now."

Armstrong said it's not just the wetlands. Other sensitive bird areas include Eagle Beach and the area above the Mt. Roberts Tram terminal.

These areas hold nesting sites, some that are used annually, and are also popular with birds because of the availability of food.

In an area like the Dike Trail, where dog-walkers take their pets daily, some of the best areas for food can be found in the sloughs just off the path. It's here Armstrong said shorebirds zero in on invertebrates, and can become an irresistible object for dogs.

Besides disrupting recovering or nesting birds, dogs running beyond voice control is also a violation of wildlife regulations.

Ryan Scott, area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said wildlife harassment is not allowed.

"If you let your dog run, you are violating that regulation," he said. "I would never tell people not to walk your dog, but just be responsible and keep control of the animals."

As stated in this year's 2009-2010 Alaska Hunting Regulations, it is a violation of "take," which by definition includes "in any manner disturbing ... fish or game."

This issue, however, is not just about dogs and their owners. It's also an issue of space. The trail, which Armstrong said used to be near vacant in 1960, is now so crowded, people are walking further out into the wetlands.

Concerned community members, however, accept the fact this particular trail is a popular one. Rightfully so. It's centrally located, not too long, not too short and is wide enough for multiple users and flat enough for nearly all ability levels.

Chava Lee, executive director of the Gastineau Humane Society, said she thinks the concern for these birds is legitimate.

"We get hundreds of calls of individuals complaining about unrestrained dogs on the Dike Trail," she said. "You cannot walk the Dike Trail without having an encounter with a dog."

The Gastineau Humane Society owns the contract for animal control in Juneau.

Lee regularly walks her own dog on the trail and, through observation, has come to the conclusion that "it's not the dogs, it's the people." She also believes it will take other agencies helping to enforce regulations, such as the leash law that exists on the trail, for a change to occur.

Enforcement may be one solution. Education may be another.

O'Malley said this is an opportunity for he community.

"It's a point for learning. It's a point for us to just observe and take a look at what's happening," he said. "You can see if the bird is alarmed, or not. If they're cleaning themselves, or eating, the bird is probably relaxed. But if they're up and looking at you or your dog, you may be doing something that isn't OK."

Preservation of this area as a "safe haven" for birds is in the best interest of more than just avid birders. O'Malley mentioned the hunters who will benefit during hunting season and the revenue from tourists arriving to view the various visiting bird species.

In the meantime, Mark Schwan, president of the Juneau Audubon Society, said users should be aware of this "critical period."

"These birds really deplete their resources and the energy cost to migrate those long miles is immense," he said. "When they do stop and have an ability to refuel, it's nice not to stress them any further."

• Contact Outdoors editorAbby Lowell @ abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.



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