Conflicting Values: Pets and Wildlife

By Joshua Rose Gazette Contributing Writer

Residents of Amherst have been debating about dogs and leashes for the past several months. According to some residents, the argument has actually been going on for a decade or two.

Amethyst Brook Conservation Area in particular is a hugely popular site for dog walking, and has become a flash point of the conflict, even more so since the town limited the hours of approved off-leash activity. But frequently lost in the contention over leashed vs. unleashed, how many hours and when is another issue: Should pets be allowed at all, let alone encouraged, in a conservation area?

While the destruction that cats visit on birds and other animals is extensive and thoroughly documented, the harm that dogs cause has been recognized more recently and is not widely known. Simply put, dogs are bad for wildlife. Most breeds were originally bred for hunting, many specifically for hunting birds.

Research on the Ontario side of Lake Erie, published in 1982, found that about one-third of the nests of killdeer (a shorebird) in a certain area were destroyed by dogs. Off-leash dogs that are not intentionally chasing birds still can accidentally trample and destroy the nests of ground-nesting species. Others chase and sometimes kill small mammals and other creatures; I have even heard of dogs that habitually eat tree frogs.

Unfortunately, even leashed dogs—theoretically unable to kill or chase anything—still have a negative impact. A study from Australia, published by two researchers from the University of New South Wales in 2007, showed that areas of forest where dogs were walked regularly, whether leashed or not, had significantly fewer breeding birds (both species and individuals) than similar areas where humans walked without dogs. Several other studies, including two from California and Great Britain, have documented that the presence of pets, particularly dogs, disturbs certain bird and mammal species far more than the presence of humans.

The most likely reason—though it has not been proven—is perception. Wildlife generally cannot distinguish a dog, even a leashed one, from a wild predator such as a fox, coyote or wolf. When a predator appears, many birds will stop whatever they are doing—seeking mates, building nests, feeding young, etc.—in order to watch the predator and determine how great a threat it presents. If predators appear too often in an area, the birds may leave rather than nest somewhere with so high a risk. Those that remain see their chicks die before adulthood more often because so much of the parents’ time and energy is diverted toward watching for predators, rather than gathering food and other necessary activities. (The news for off-leash proponents is not all bad; a 2006 study from Edmonton failed to detect a difference in bird diversity between areas where leashes were required on dogs and others where they were not.)

What can we pet owners do to protect wildlife from our four-legged family members? While cats can (and should) just be kept indoors, this is not a viable option for the vast majority of dogs, and as previously mentioned, even leashed dogs can harm wildlife. The key is location. We should identify the most important wildlife habitats, and steer dog activity away from these areas.

In cases like Amethyst Brook, communities should consider whether a “conservation area” should encourage so many dogs to visit. We need to decide what we value in a particular area. Should a conservation area place higher importance on wildlife and biodiversity, or on bringing humans (and dogs) out into natural areas?

If wildlife conservation is a high priority, then use by dogs runs counter to that goal. If the top priority is recreation, for both humans and dogs, that is a valid decision, but we need to acknowledge the full cost of the decision, that we are probably sacrificing some bird populations by inviting dogs into an area. Let’s find a way to give both pets and wildlife their due—just not in the same place.

Joshua Rose is a naturalist and educator in Amherst who regularly leads programs for local nature- oriented groups. He is a member of the board of the Hampshire Bird Club.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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