The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is rolling out a familiar New Year’s resolution to kick off 2021: convince dog owners to leash their pets while exploring local beaches.
“Let’s face it, most dog-owners want to let their dogs off leash to exercise and roam free” read a statement from the park reserve last month. “But, whether you view Pacific Rim National Park Reserve as your own backyard, or that longed-for reprieve from your busy city lifestyle elsewhere in the province, keeping your dog leashed—or even better, at home—is the best way to show that you care about both your dog and the ecosystem.”
Beyond the nuisances they can bring to other beach goers, off-leash pets are an oft-maligned thorn in the side of shorebird monitors and a frustrating catalyst for potential conflicts with wolves.
The park reserve’s First Nations program manager Tammy Dorward said following the leash law shows respect to the area’s wildlife, environment and people.
“The principle of respect is very important in Nuu-chah-nulth culture, and is something we focus on in our teachings,” Dorward said. “Especially as locals, you are showing respect for others in our community, including the Nuu-chah-nulth. The lands within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve are our traditional territory and we have lived here since time immemorial. Together as locals, we all need to comply with the leash policy to continue being able to enjoy the beaches with our pets.”
She added that keeping pets leashed also shows respect for wolves who might view a loose dog as prey, putting both the dog and wolf at risk.
In 2017, Parks Canada killed a wolf that had attacked a dog within its boundaries. It was the first time since 2008 that a wolf was killed in the park reserve.
“In Nuu-Chah-nulth culture we view wolves as sacred and as family members, similar to how you view your pet as part of your family. When a wolf has to be destroyed due to the ripple effect of pets being let off-leash, it is a tragic loss like losing a family member,” Dorward said. “When wolves learn to see pets as an easy meal, this leads to a downward spiral of wolves teaching others in the pack to feed on pets and become less afraid of humans. They roam widely and start approaching small humans and pets in the neighbouring towns. When you leash your pet, you are showing respect for our family and for wildlife.”
Sebastian Townsend of the park reserve’s Coastal Stewards program said leashes also help other visitors enjoy their surroundings without being forced to mingle with dogs they might not want to play with.
“Keeping your dog on leash shows you care about the health of the national park reserve and other visitors’ right to enjoy the peaceful setting,” he said.
The Coastal Stewards program sees summer students patrolling the park reserve’s beaches during the summer months to help visitors explore their surroundings safely and respectfully, including educating them on leash laws and coastal risk factors. Townsend said that the leash compliance rate at Long Beach during the region’s annual shorebird migration period has fluctuated between 38 to 69 per cent over the past nine years and held at a relatively respectable, albeit with ample room to improve, 66 per cent in 2020.
“As Coastal Stewards, we appreciate seeing you with your pets on leashes. It shows you understand that everyone has a right to peaceful enjoyment, and that might not include your dog approaching them to say hello,” he said.
Park Warden Tanya Dowdall noted “not everyone is a dog lover” and that off-leash dogs can have negative impacts on other beach goers.
Like Dorward, Dowdall believes locals have an important responsibility as role models for respectful behaviour suggesting that tourists may not always notice signs outlining the rules, but will notice what the people around them are doing.
“Your behaviour is contagious. If they see your pet on-leash, they will see that this is the cultural norm, and will be much more likely to follow suit and leash their pet as well. If they see you letting your dog off-leash, you are unintentionally giving them permission to let their pet roam as well, and causing an off-leash epidemic. Unfortunately, your inappropriate behaviour has a very powerful impact in modelling even more negative behaviour,” she said. “When you set a good example for others by keeping your dog on a leash, this seemingly small act makes a world of difference in the ecosystem we enjoy. Your choice causes a ripple effect that allows dogs to continue visiting the national park reserve.”
Todd Windle, who manages the park reserve’s Wild About Wolves program, said leashes are an important sign that a visitor values the safety of their pet as well as the wolves whose habitat their exploring and that tend to see anything with fur, four legs and a tail as a potential meal.
“When wolves see dogs off leash, they may approach or even attack them,” he said. “This not only puts your pet at risk, but causes wolves to lose their natural wariness of humans. This increases the risk that the wolves will develop even more dangerous behaviours. As they become more confident hunting around people, they may also begin to think of people, especially children, as potential prey. A habituated wolf may eventually need to be killed as a last resort to protect public safety. At the end of your visit, you may leave the area, but the wolf remains with the lessons it learned. You may have contributed to leaving the area a little more dangerous than when you arrived.”
Ian Cruickshank monitors the park reserve’s ecological integrity and said off-leash dogs can have a drastic impacts on migrating shorebird populations.
The West Coast serves as an essential pitstop for tens of thousands of shorebirds travelling between their South American feeding grounds and Arctic breeding grounds from April-May and July-September.
“By keeping your pet on leash and walking around flocks of birds, rather than through them, you are showing that you understand that Pacific Rim National Park Reserve’s beaches are wildlife habitat. You are showing that you care about the ecosystem and see yourself as a small part of the bigger picture,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of shorebirds of at least 30 species make landfall along the Pacific Flyway on the region’s mudflats and beaches twice each year. Shorebirds rest and feed on the beaches in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, replenishing their fat reserves before continuing on their journey, some travelling long distances between the Arctic and South America. By leashing your pet and staying at least 25 metres away from shorebirds, you are impacting their survival rate.”