Off-leash dogs could cause problems with Calgary’s wildlife

Calgarians took to the outdoors in droves during the pandemic as a way to seek respite from being cooped up indoors, and we should be seeing another surge of people as the spring weather settles in this year.

But data collected through wildlife cameras shows there is one particular behaviour that could create some problems with numerous other animals that call the city home.

A three-year project called Calgary Captured revealed there’s a high number of instances of people letting their dogs off their leash in areas where it is not actually allowed. Out of about 20,000 images of off-leash dogs collected through Calgary Captured, 89 per cent were in on-leash dog areas.

While it may be tempting to let Fido run free in any open field or forested area, we may not be aware of the damage they can cause.

“Our studies show that where we have really high levels of human activity in our parks, we have the wildlife species tending to be more nocturnal. In other words, they’re using the parks when we’re not,” said Tracy Lee, senior project manager at the Miistakis Institute and Calgary Captured. “Off-leash dogs obviously have an impact on how animals use the landscape.”

It’s even more important right now, with fauns being born and birds nesting in our natural areas and the normal behaviour of a dog could lead to a disruption in their lives.

“This is a really critical time for sure,” said Nature Calgary President John McFaul. “Dogs are curious animals, they love to go exploring, they love to look for things, and often some of them like to chase things. When they do so, that interrupts the daily behaviour of the animals living and gives them more stress.”

Dog owners can also be putting their precious pets at risk by taking them off-leash in the wrong areas.

WATCH: CityNews’ Tom Ross reports on a high number of off-leash dogs in on-leash areas could cause some issues with area wildlife.

Calgary Captured helped reveal we really have an extremely diverse ecosystem amongst the urban landscape we are surrounded by, and some of these animals could create a rough time for dogs or their owners if there is an unfortunate confrontation.

This includes a high population of coyotes, protective deer, porcupines or even skunks.

“Getting sprayed by a skunk is never fun for anybody,” said Lee.

Park users are advised to continue using the areas in the daytime to reduce any incidents of conflict, since animals are typically becoming more nocturnal due to our activities. It’s also wise to follow signage because areas that are designated as on-leash are that way for a good reason.

There is also the challenge of trying to mitigate the issue because there is ample signage in parks around the city but some dog owners either don’t see it or choose not to abide by it.

“It’s the number one infraction in the park, it’s also one that is most difficult for conservation officers to enforce,” said Chris Lalonde, communications manager with Friends of Fish Creek. “We get calls all the time, as well as emails and posts on social media about people concerned that there’s too many dogs running wild in the park.”

Volunteers with this organization will be out and about more often in Fish Creek Provincial Park during the spring and summer, hoping to engage face to face with people enjoying the area and maybe assisting in spreading the message on how to be a responsible user.

Advocates agree that education will be the most powerful tool at their disposal and they cannot rely on fines being handed out to every single person wanting to play fetch with their dog in an area where they should still be leashed up.

“Some people don’t really seem to care. It’s not so much a dog problem, it’s the owner’s problem in terms of how they control their animals and respect the other wildlife that is there,” said McFaul.

There is no shortage of proper off-leash parks in the city as well, so there’s little excuse for unleashing the dog in the wrong place. Another factor to consider is some dog owners want to stay in on-leash areas for their own safety and don’t want to have an unfortunate run-in with another person’s pet.

The bottom line from nature watchers in Calgary is that we all need to work together to ensure natural areas remain pristine and wildlife can continue to thrive in the vast green spaces we have available. This also includes the responsibility of walkers and bikers using the parks for reasons other than getting some exercise for their pet.

“There’s probably four million people who visit the park each year,” said Lalonde. “They’re all there to enjoy nature and to get away from the stress of daily life, and we all just need to respect each other.”

“We’re visiting the homes of wildlife that exist in those natural areas, we have to respect the lives that they are living there,” added McFaul.

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