Should Dogs Be On Leashes in a Wildlife Preserve?

Many people enjoy hiking in our local natural areas, and a lot of those people bring along their furry, four-legged canine friends to join them in the experience. In recent years, "off-leash" recreation has become popular, and many parks and open spaces allow dogs to run free without a leash. Where laws require leashes, enforcement is often spotty, and many people simply ignore the law. Channel Islands Restoration has become the new Project Manager for habitat restoration and stewardship at the San Marcos Foothills Preserve (SMFP) which is located between Santa Barbara and Goleta. We have been struggling with the issue of dog-owners who refuse to leash their pooches while visiting the Preserve. We are interested in your view about how appropriate leash laws are in open spaces that contain a lot of wildlife, particularly in wildlife preserves.

In 2010, CIR began working with the County of Santa Barbara to restore habitat at the SMFP. Since then our role has expanded to include stewardship and education. The Preserve had been donated to the County to ensure that the property would be preserved as open space for its biological, scenic and archaeological resources. All this came about after years of advocacy by conservationists, who saved the property from development with the idea of conserving it as a primary goal, but also allowing for low-impact recreation that would be friendly to the wildlife.

As many as 43 rare or threatened species may be found on the Preserve, including nesting birds and other animals that are vulnerable to disturbance by pets. Birds can abandon their nests if disturbed by people or pets that wander off the trails. Nesting animals often hide in shrubs or grassy areas very near trail edges. A curious dog can easily find and disturb these animals, and the encounter may result in a missed opportunity for that animal to breed. This happens more often than most of us know, and the consequences are measurable: the number of birds are in steep decline in many areas, including at the SMFP.

Off-leash dogs also face dangers from wildlife. We know of two coyote attacks on dogs that were walking off-leash in local open spaces (including at the SMFP) and one of these attacks ended up in the death of a beloved pet. The SMFP also has a large rattlesnake population, and uncontrolled dogs are very vulnerable to snake bite.

CIR has been working with the County to educate visitors at the SMFP about why dogs should be on leashes. Our message: the laws are not arbitrary, and they are mostly designed to protect wildlife. We have posted flyers at the Preserve, and also included information on our web page. The County has posted additional signage making it clear that leash laws are in force. Still, most pet owners who visit the Preserve act as if it is an off-leash dog park (there are six parks that are officially designated as off-leash in the Santa Barbara area). As a result, the County ranger has been issuing tickets, which has caused outrage by many of the pet owners.

We would like to hear from you about this issue!

Do you think it's reasonable to require dogs be on leashes in wildlife preserves like the SMFP? Considering that there are many parks and open spaces that allow off-leash dog-walking, should the leash laws elsewhere be enforced? We know that people have a variety of opinions on this subject, and we would like to hear from you no matter what you think (we will keep your comments confidential).

Please send us an email with your thoughts to: