Bringing Fido on a walk to a conservation area may have a bigger impact on the environment than expected, whether it be chasing birds, trampling vegetation or just marking their scent. Some wildlife preservation areas have rules in place to limit the impact dogs have on the environment, and people’s experience visiting the areas.
After repeated complaints regarding negative and unsafe encounters with unleashed dogs and issues with dog waste, MassWildlife is now taking action. They’ve proposed regulations that require dogs to be leashed and their waste to be removed from wildlife management areas.
A public hearing on the proposed regulations is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 6 at the MassWildlife Field Headquarters, 1 Rabbit Hill Road, Westborough.
Under the proposed regulations, dogs are allowed to be off-leash when hunting or hunt-training with licensed hunters or at permitted field trials. Dog waste must be picked up and disposed of off-site, according to the proposal.
“Leashing dogs decreases conflicts with both people and other dogs, resulting in a safer and more positive experience for everyone,” MassWildlife wrote on its website. “Removing dog waste reduces nuisance and protects the safety and health of dogs and other pets, people, and wildlife.”
In response to requests for further information, Katie Gronendyke, spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the emailed this statement: “MassWildlife takes seriously its responsibility to strike a balance between protecting the Commonwealth’s wildlife while ensuring access to public lands, and MassWildlife has engaged in public outreach throughout the promulgation of the draft regulations which seek to protect manage critical habitat while providing continued public access.”
Meanwhile, other state wildlife areas, including all but one of Mass Audubon’s sanctuaries, do not allow dogs.
Jonah Keane, director of the Connecticut River Valley Sanctuaries for Mass Audubon, said the organization put the rule in place back in 1981. Before then, dogs were allowed, but on leashes, he said.
“We found a lot of people were following that rule,” Keane said, but said that many dog owners instead let their pets roam free.
He said the sanctuary is meant to protect wildlife, but it is also for people to come and enjoy nature. Dogs can interfere with both, Keane said.
“They can actually harass and kill other wildlife … They are predators,” Keane said. “They can also harass other visitors.”
Tom Lautzenheiser, central/western regional scientist for Mass Audubon, said the ecology of places can change where dogs are prevalent such as the soil properties, plant community and wildlife.
Paige Warren, an ecology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said even people have a large impact on how the environment can change.
“Constant foot traffic hammers down the soil,” she said.
That impacts the soil’s use for insects and other species, but also changes the kinds of plants that grow along that are as some are sensitive to trampling and disturbance, Warren said. People also bring in invasive plant species through clothes used hiking in different areas, Warren said.
But Lautzenheiser said dogs can drastically increase the impact.
“Frequently, in a forest where there’s a very high dog usage, they take on a particular look that’s not natural,” Lautzenheiser said.
He said in areas with a high number of dogs, there are less plants along the trails from trampling vegetation and running off the path, he said. In areas where dogs are allowed off-leash, there’s a significantly lower presence of ground nesting birds, Lautzenheiser said.
At Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton, Keane said there is a road that runs by meadows of the sanctuary. Leashed dogs are allowed to be on the road, Keane said, but should not run into the meadows, where many grassland birds nest.
“It’s very important that they stay on the road,” Keane said. “Dogs that run through those fields are particularly detrimental.”
A dog’s scent marking with urine will stress animals and they will avoid the area, Lautzenheiser said. For example, if deer are too concentrated in one area, food supply will run low and they will start eating tree seedlings, ultimately affecting the woods’ canopy later on, Lautzenheiser said.
Diseases, such as canine parvovirus, also can be spread through dog feces. While dogs can also catch the virus when visiting, Lautzenheiser said the owner will most likely take the dog to the veterinarian and get treatment. If a wild animal is exposed to a virus and gets sick, Lautzenheiser said, “it’s probably going to die.”
Lautzenheiser said it might be easy for a dog owner to dismiss the environmental effects of not cleaning up after their dog on a particular walk, but the collective effect can be “dramatic.”
“After a winter like this one, when spring finally arrives, months’ worth of dog waste comes melting out of the snowpack,” Lautzenheiser said. “The resulting influx of nutrients, bacteria, and other pollutants impairs water and soil quality, vegetation composition, and wildlife habitat function, with potential human health risks as well.”
At Mass Audubon sanctuaries, Lautzenheiser said people do break the rules and bring dogs. And when people don’t pick up their dog’s poop, Lautzenheiser said “it’s not cool.”
Lautzenheiser said people can minimize their dog’s impact on environment by commonsense responsibility such as cleaning up and keeping dogs under command.
Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at email@example.com.