Keep Fido on a leash
By Tracy Salcedo
It sounded like Ada was having a wonderful time.
Maybe she was in the water, maybe she was romping through the grass, maybe she’d taken a run up into the oaks.
“Come, Ada! Come,” her owner’s voice rang out across the water. “Ada!”
Ada and her owner were at Lake Suttonfield in the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), where dogs must be leashed but people sometimes still allow them to run free. The same disregard for the leash laws manifests occasionally in other parks in Glen Ellen, Kenwood, and Oakmont, but the managers of local open spaces, whether on state park, regional park, or other protected lands, are unified in their message to dog owners: For the safety of wildlife, other park users, and the dogs themselves, keep them restrained.
Sonoma Land Trust
Bob Neale, stewardship director for the Sonoma Land Trust (SLT), which oversees preserves from the Sonoma Coast to the Mayacamas Range, including Glen Ellen’s Glen Oaks Ranch, explained the biggest concerns the land trust has when it comes to dogs off leash are impacts on “wildlife behavior, the possibility of spreading disease to wildlife through their feces, and possible negative impacts with livestock on properties where we have grazing.”
In email correspondence, Neale noted “strong scientific support that dogs off leash chase, harass, injure, and kill a broad variety of wildlife. This results in animals changing their behavior in ways that stress them.”
Quinton Martins of Living with Lions piggybacked on this idea. “From a mountain lion point of view it is important that dogs are on leashes to avoid potential conflict with a lion,” he said. “Smaller dogs will be in serious danger of being injured or killed, while larger dogs may end up being a threat to mountain lions. Female lions with cubs are most at risk. Dogs off-leash can also be a serious threat to other fauna, chasing after and injuring or killing wild animals they might encounter before the owner can restrain them.”
While “keeping dogs on leashes greatly reduces these impacts,” Neal explained that the SLT takes it a step further: Dogs are prohibited on land trust preserves.
“In my own observations, and I’m a dog lover and dog owner, enough people do not obey dog-on-leash policies that it makes it difficult to allow them at all on sensitive properties,” Neale said. “Because Sonoma Land Trust isn’t a parks agency, most of our lands are only open for guided activities. We normally don’t allow dogs on those guided activities for safety reasons and because many people feel uncomfortable around dogs, even when they are on leash. We do allow seeing eye dogs and similar support animals.”
Different agencies have different policies regarding dogs on open space, however, Neale noted. For example, in Marin County, some open space properties allow dogs off leash under “voice control.” Outside designated dog parks, like the Elizabeth Perrone Dog Park in Sonoma Valley Regional Park, that is not the case in Sonoma County. Things get complicated, however, in places like the SDC, which is not overseen by a park or conservation agency and enforcement of county leash laws is hit and miss.
“SDC is actually a very sensitive wildlife area because it is a pinch point, a very narrow part of the Blue Ridge to Marin Coast Wildlife Corridor,” Neale said. “This corridor is critical to protect and to keep permeable, to allow wildlife of all kinds to pass easily, so that individuals can keep their normal ranges.”
Neale acknowledges that leash laws provoke strong emotions from dog owners and those who share trails with them.
“I’m a dog owner and my dogs love to be outside and to run off leash,” he said. “It isn’t easy to find places for that activity, yet I think it is important for us to make that effort. As humans continue to expand into wildlands, many of our favorite native animals are being forced to move or to change their behavior in ways that are not natural. I love all our animals, domestic and wild, and I want to do my part to keep all of them thriving.”
Sonoma Valley Regional Park
“One of the reasons people love their county parks is that they can bring their dog as a companion, they can exercise their dogs, and they benefit from the additional safety they might feel when hiking alone,” said Sarah Phelps, marketing specialist with Sonoma County Regional Parks, in email correspondence. “In many ways allowing dogs on leash is part of our brand at regional parks.”
That said, Phelps continued, keeping dogs on leashes a maximum of six feet long “is imperative to provide for the security of our wildlife and to make sure trails can be shared by others (walkers, runners, equestrians, bicyclists) in a safe manner. Park visitors who break the rules and allow their dogs off leash, or walk them on long retractable leads, [threaten] to reverse our long-held policy allowing dogs in county parks.”
What happens if you are caught with your dog running off leash in a regional park? First, you’ll likely get a verbal warning and some education. Citations begin at $100 and range up to $500 for repeat offenders, and the dog owner may be required to make a court appearance.
Sonoma County Regional Parks has produced an informative video to help educate visitors about the importance of keeping dogs leashed in their regional parks: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpU-iWhaC2Y. Dogs are prohibited in two regional parks: Shiloh Ranch in Windsor and North Sonoma Mountain outside Glen Ellen. For more information on Sonoma County Regional Parks, visit sonomacountyparks.org.
Jack London State Historic Park
Adhering to California State Park policy, Matt Leffert, executive director of Jack London Park Partners, noted dogs are allowed in developed areas of Jack London State Historic Park (Jack London SHP), including on trails to the Wolf House, the historic cottage (but not within the historic garden), the winery ruins, the Pig Palace, the group picnic area in the eucalyptus grove, and the picnic area in the oak grove. Dogs are not allowed on trails or dirt roads in the backcountry, or inside historic buildings.
“We do have many visitors everyday who bring their dogs into the historic area trails — which is wonderful,” Leffert said in an email.
Jack London SHP also is part of a wildlife corridor, and Leffert reiterated the reason for restricted access to dogs, adding, “Dogs are predators by nature and they often mark their territory in order to keep competitors away. This scent marking can infringe on the terrain of wide-ranging wild predator species such as mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats, and interrupt essential contiguous wildlife corridors.”
In terms of enforcement, state park rangers patrol the park’s backcountry and will cite visitors who break the rules. “We try to provide signage and information to visitors, but signs often get torn down by unhappy dog owners,” Leffert commented. He also addressed the challenges of connectivity between the SDC and Jack London SHP: “Those trails are adjacent to ours and more often than not dog owners continue into the park with their dogs despite the signs.”
For more information on rules that apply to dog owners in state parks, visit www.parks.ca.gov/dogs. For more information on Jack London SHP, visit https://jacklondonpark.com.
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park
John Roney, manager of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, reiterated the primary motivating concern behind state park restrictions prohibiting dogs on trails: It’s about the wildlife. At Sugarloaf, that means well-behaved dogs are permitted on leash in developed areas.
“When [visitors] get here, we tell them about the loop through the campground and then up to the [Robert Ferguson] Observatory and back. That is 1.9 miles long,” Roney explained in an email. Dogs are not permitted on trails within the park’s front country or backcountry.
To help dog owners find places nearby to walk with their dogs, Team Sugarloaf has produced a handout for visitors and campers, directing them to dog-friendly trails in Sonoma Valley Regional Park, in Spring Lake Regional Park, and in neighboring Hood Mountain Regional Park.
For more information on Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, visit https://sugarloafpark.org.