Dog Dirt Deliberations

City looks for examples of how to manage dogs on trails


In the West, there are certain inalienable rights: the right to recreate just outside your back door; the right to wear jeans just about everywhere; and, apparently, the right to have a dog follow wherever you go.

Unfortunately, two of those rights are conflicting more often, as the number of people (and dogs) using the Boise Foothills is on the rise.

Whether it's unleashed dogs running in front of mountain bikers, dogs fighting each other or just the unsightly and unsanitary piles of dog poop turning trails into mine fields of excrement, there's a fight brewing.

The City of Boise is attempting to formulate a plan to deal with the canine issue before it gets too rancorous.

Managing the 126 miles of Foothills trails under the control of Ridge to Rivers is a daunting job, with only 5 percent of the trail system under leash laws.

But Boise is not alone in its dog problem. Cities across the country are dealing with increasing conflicts between users, and Boise is pointing to them as examples of what works and what doesn't.

A working group of citizens, city officials and trail managers is collecting data from cities across the country as a starting point for formulating a local plan. This comes after a public comment period that netted more than 400 responses.

Most comments were concerned with the proliferation of poop, and dog owners who don't clean up after their pets. Others expressed concerns about wildlife harassment, conflicts with hikers and the lack of enforcement on the trails.

Some respondents worried about increased erosion due to dogs straying off designated trails. Of course, there were some who said native wildlife, like deer and coyotes, were damaging the environment since they stubbornly refuse to stay on the marked trail system.

All these are issues other Western communities are dealing with—with the possible exception of vandalism by wildlife—especially in dog havens like Boulder, Colo., Bend, Ore., and Jackson, Wyo., where dog ownership is nearly a requirement of residency.

Few communities have as elaborate a control program as Boulder, where the city has a combination of leash laws, voice- and sight-control registration, and a dozen rangers to patrol the 143 miles of trails.

Julie Johnson, public information officer for the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks office, said Boulder's trails are divided into a mixture of leash-only, off-leash and no-dogs-allowed areas. Even on those trails where dogs are permitted off-leash, they mush be in voice- and sight-control and carry a city registration tag proving their owner completed the required voice control course.

The voice- and sight-control regulation means an owner—or "dog guardian," according to the Boulder Web site—must be able to see his or her dog at all times and the dog must respond to commands immediately.

To meet the standard, owners must watch a video on trail etiquette and then agree to the terms of registration. These stipulations include having no more than two dogs off-leash at any one time.

If a dog is caught out of control, or without the registration tag, owners can be issued a citation, fined $50 or more, and after three citations, have their off-leash privileges revoked.

So far, roughly 10,000 off-leash tags have been sold, and no one has had his or her privileges taken away. This will be the second season under the program, which Johnson said is the first of its kind.

Additionally, all dogs must be on leashes in all trailhead areas.

Program designers had hoped it would make people more aware of picking up after their dogs, and it worked—at least around the trailheads. Outside of that, careful footwork is still required.

"It's crazy," Johnson said. "I can't believe we have to tell adults to pick up after their dog."

One disgruntled trail user in Boulder went so far as to use GPS coordinates to map the location of every pile of doggie-doo in the immediate area of a trash can.

But it's more than just a sanitation issue in Boulder. Johnson said the city has had instances of dogs killing both wildlife and other dogs.

Deaths haven't been the problem in Bend, but several senior citizen have been knocked into the Deschutes River, said Erin Bennett, park ranger for the Bend Metro Parks and Recreation District.

Bennett is currently the only ranger assigned to monitor the city's 48 miles of trail spread across 74 parks.

"It's a big issue," Bennett said of dogs on multi-use trails. "A lot of dog owners want trail use and want river access. They would like it off-leash, but we have too many people. It just doesn't work."

Leashes are required on all city trails and in nature and wildlife preserves. Owners are also required to pick up after their dogs or face fines beginning at $250.

"If you do choose to break the rules, you'll only do it once," Bennett said.

The city has started a traffic school model for first offenders, allowing owners to attend a class in exchange for dismissing a first ticket.

Bennett said she works closely with law enforcement officers, allowing them to take over in cases where conflicts get serious.

The town of Jackson and surrounding Teton County, Wyo., are dealing with the same problems of management and enforcement. While the population of humans is just more than 8,500, the dog issue is disproportionately large.

"The per capita dog ownership in Jackson is kind of out of control," said Brian Schilling, pathways coordinator for Jackson and Teton County.

The city has a leash law for all paths, but Schilling said it's only loosely enforced and no one is designated to do the enforcing.

Instead, Schilling and several nonprofit volunteer groups work on public education, including installing mutt mitt stations along popular pathways and trails.

One of those groups is Friends of Pathways, a recreational user group that tries to make the pathway system work for multiple user groups.

Tim Young, executive director of the group, said the key has been being proactive, with volunteers stationed at popular trailheads to let people know about the regulations. The program works in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the vast majority of the public lands surrounding Jackson Hole.

Regardless of the location, dog issues are always hotly contested. One of the biggest problems in Johnson's opinion is simply the fact that most people don't want to take responsibility for the problem.

"It's not my dog," Johnson said of the argument. "It's everybody else's dog."