Wednesday, January 09, 2013

About those dogs...

"It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can."

~ Sydney Smith

Due to unusually high attendance, public comments were limited to one minute at the January 7th Town of Middleton Board meeting. A minute wasn't nearly enough time for me to say everything that was on my mind about off-leash dogs at conservancy lands. How can one convey the benefit and significance places like Pope Farm and Goth Conservancies offer grassland birds in just one minute? It would be impossible. But I had addressed the board on a couple of other occasions regarding the plight of grassland birds and hoped they would remember. I pondered what to do with my minute. I felt a little nervous and hurried when I began to speak. I decided to address the lack of compliance at the Dane County parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy by showing them a history of the signage. Over time, new signs were added in response to noncompliance, but the problem continues to this day even under a threat of closing the prairie areas to dog walking.

Signage at Pheasant Branch Conservancy in recent years.

The rich habitat and diverse avifauna of Pheasant Branch prairie is very similar to Pope Farm. Both conservancies are incredible treasures not only for naturalists, but for all to appreciate. At both natural areas you'll find an oak savanna and a prairie restoration in progress. If you know what to look and listen for, you'll detect the presence of Sedge Wrens, Dickcissels, Field Sparrows, Clay-colored Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Eastern Kingbirds, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Horned Larks. Additionally, Pope Farm has Vesper Sparrows and occasionally Henslow's Sparrows (state threatened). In all, I tallied 55 bird species at Pope Farm during the breeding season in 2012. A decade ago it was all agricultural fields.

I understand that off-leash dogs running through a prairie may be a comparatively small threat to ground nesting grassland birds, but it still a threat. There are far worse threats to birds, but consider the following citation from The Birds of North America (Eastern Meadowlark):
Incubating or brooding birds are subject to predation from domestic cats, dogs, foxes, and skunks. Females may explode off nest, sometimes causing injury to scattered eggs and young (Lanyon 1957).
I recall this and cringe every time I witness a dog running off-leash at the prairie. Does the pet's owner not know what's hidden beneath the grass? At that moment the threat is present and real for birds on ground nests. Sadly, rare is a visit to the prairie I don't see someone's dog running around off-leash. With the potential for disturbances day after day during nesting season, who can say what the cumulative impact is without extensive studies? There nevertheless must be an impact.

Wisconsin grassland birds in decline.

Naturally, we will never eliminate all threats to imperiled birds, but isn't it prudent to err on the side of caution at a nature conservancy? Let's be clear on this point: The dramatic grassland bird population declines shown above are our fault. We did this. I believe we owe the birds a place to nest that's as safe as we can possibly make it and that's what nature conservancies are for. These species have returned to places like Pope Farm and Pheasant Branch, and that's something we can all be proud of. But if dog owners fail to comply with posted rules, then their pets shouldn't be allowed there.

Dogs were once allowed at Pope Farm for a period of six years. It ended because too many irresponsible pet owners ignored posted rules. When presented with the aesthetic beauty of the open prairie, the temptation to let a dog run free is apparently too great to resist for many pet owners. Most don't even seem to care other people are watching them break the rules. Such owners don't believe their pet could cause harm to wildlife, another dog, or a person. When confronted, they are typically rude or even hostile. "Mind your own business!" I'll hear. Well, protecting birds is my business.

No leash! The unhappy moment of rule reminder and insults.

I think it's likely true that if everyone who visited these conservancies kept their dogs on leash, this particular threat to birds would be significantly diminished, perhaps even non-existent. But for years, even decades, whether at Dane County parks, Madison parks, or Town of Middleton parks, compliance has proven to be a huge problem. Lack of compliance with people keeping dogs on leash is why dogs are banned from Madison's conservation parks. It's nearly impossible to enforce and nobody at the meeting offered fresh ideas how it might possibly work. Thus, there is every reason to believe if dogs were allowed back at Pope Farm and Goth Conservancies, the same problems would reoccur as they do at Pheasant Branch Conservancy today.

The Board Supervisors recognized that the Town of Middleton does have a need for an outdoor dog park or exercise facility and was ready to move forward with a motion. This did not satisfy the individual who spearheaded a petition to allow dogs back onto conservancy lands. Ultimately, though, the board passed a motion which, in part, forbids the Parks Commission to even consider conservancy lands for the purposes of establishing a park where dogs will be allowed.

© 2013 Mike McDowell

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