Tuesday, January 09, 2018


Ground nesters are vulnerable!

Here's a comprehensive review complied by Metro Parks and Nature (Oregon) summarizing research on the impact pet dogs (on or off leash) can potentially have on natural areas.

Impacts include:

1. Physical and temporal displacement – The presence of dogs causes wildlife to move away, temporarily or permanently reducing the amount of available habitat in which to feed, breed and rest. Animals become less active during the day to avoid dog interactions. Furthermore, the scent of dogs repels wildlife and the effects remain after the dogs are gone.

2. Disturbance and stress response – Animals are alarmed and cease their routine activities. This increases the amount of energy they use, while simultaneously reducing their opportunities to feed. Repeated stress causes long-term impacts on wildlife including reduced reproduction and growth, suppressed immune system and increased vulnerability to disease and parasites.

3. Indirect and direct mortality – Dogs transmit diseases (such as canine distemper and rabies) to and from wildlife. Loose dogs kill wildlife.

4. Human disease and water quality impacts - Dog waste pollutes water and transmits harmful parasites and diseases to people.

Naturally, this is all very bad for birds and other critters that live at the conservancy. It's refreshing to read something I've long suspected true in my gut about dogs at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. According to eBird data, there are some puzzling population declines for around a dozen or so grassland bird species. But is it really a mystery?

There has been ongoing discussion about dogs at the conservancy on the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy Facebook page. Some residents of nearby North Lake and Orchid Heights were not pleased when the "No Dogs" signs went up. Of note, I found the following comments rather disappointing (all from the same individual):

"I support dogs on leash, but let's be clear banning dogs will 'Never' be an option."

"Agreement, that people should work harder to keep dogs on leashes. However, start talking 'No dogs' and you will have no support from me and many people in Middleton. Extremists and authoritarians have basically ruined this country. Let's keep Middleton, the good neighbor city."

"It is an organization that allows citizens to enjoy nature in an non-authoritarian environment without an abundance or rules and restrictions. It is one of the reasons we don't mind paying healthy property taxes."

Naturally, I disagree with all three comments. First of all, banning pet dogs is most definitely an option, which is the state at several other excellent nature conservancies in Dane County. Second, what about being a good neighbor to the prairie's wildlife? Though there are a few dog parks near the conservancy, my proposal to Dane County Parks and Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy only suggested banning dogs at the very northern prairie and oak savanna parcel (green on map). This is where as many as 60 bird species nest during the spring and summer breeding season.

Greed is not a 'good neighbor' value.

In the top-middle of the map is Orchid Heights Park (sports fields, pond, shelter, and playground equipment). Dogs would continue to be allowed there as well as the overwhelming majority of the conservancy's trail system. In light of the evidence, I contend that fighting to keep the prairie parcel open to dogs is selfish and irresponsible when there are other nearby options available to pet owners. Being pro-no dogs at the prairie parcel is a moderate and responsible stance that’s being distorted and misrepresented by fallaciously calling it "extremist"and "authoritarian."

I liken this dilemma to the movie Field of Dreams. Recall the scene when the ghost players are actively playing a game in the baseball field that was once a cornfield. Mark (played by Timothy Busfield) is unable to see the players; he can see the baseball field, but nothing else. Throughout the movie he harshly advises Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and his wife to sell their farm to prevent foreclosure. But it isn’t until Ray’s daughter chokes on a hotdog and is saved by one of the players walking off the field that Mark becomes aware of what’s occurring at Ray’s baseball field. Finally, he sees the players and immediately reverses his position: "Do not sell this farm, Ray. You've got to keep this farm!"

I contend that once people become fully aware of the unique and sensitive flora and fauna at the prairie and savanna at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, they will begin to understand what makes it worth further protecting by banning pet dogs. Compelling scientific studies show even leashed dogs threaten, harass, cause declines, even kill wildlife, and further degrades habitat quality. "Do not allow dogs on bird breeding territory, Ray. You've got to keep them safe." Sacrifice something.

To my way of thinking, even one unnecessary bird death at the hand of man (because of their pet) at a nature conservancy is one too many. It’s time to respect and treat the conservancy as a conservancy, and not a multi-use park. There are plenty of other places where residents of this city can walk their pet dogs, but there is no place else for these amazing and federally protected birds to live.

All images © 2018 Mike McDowell

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