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Walking Fido Can Mean Trouble Out in Nature

Parks: Rangers say government recreation areas are not the place for pets. Some owners disagree.


It seems natural enough, taking your dog for a walk in the park. But if the park in question is a national park, full of delicate wildlife, you may be delivering yourself and your pet into big trouble-maybe with Mother Nature, maybe with the National Park Service, maybe both.

The pet problem-usually dogs-persists throughout the national park system, and in many state and local parks as well. Like the national parks, California's state parks generally forbid unleashed dogs, and in many park areas, state and federal authorities ban dogs altogether. (Guide dogs and search dogs are exceptions.)

When parklands lie in cities, battles over access can be especially heated. In San Francisco, where open space is at a premium, dog lovers have been tussling with rangers in federal court for nearly a year over canine access to a 12-acre portion of Ft. Funston within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Though federal law has banned unleashed dogs from the area for more than 25 years, members of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group and Ft. Funston Dog Walkers say they've been unleashing their dogs there since before the park service took it over from the city in 1974.

Dog owners assert that they should be entitled to continue to let their dogs run free.

Over the last three years, San Francisco-based park service spokesman Rich Weideman said, rangers of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area filed nearly 1,500 reports of incidents involving unleashed dogs, of which 127 were dog bites.

In the last year, Weideman said, rangers have rescued 15 dogs that wandered into treacherous cliff areas at Ft. Funston, along with two dog owners who ventured into dangerous areas in efforts to collect their pets.

The Ft. Funston dispute escalated late last year when the park service, citing the need to protect a population of swallows and to preserve native plant species, moved to close the entire 12 acres to humans and dogs. It escalated further after Jan. 26, when Diane Whipple was fatally mauled by a dog in her San Francisco apartment building.

Even though that case had nothing to do with Ft. Funston, Weideman said, it was followed by a surge in complaints about unleashed dogs in the park, which is located at the southwestern edge of the city.

But problems with dogs and parks extend far beyond San Francisco.

"It's a problem here," said Alan Van Valkenburg, senior ranger at Death Valley National Park. "I know a lot of people want to get their pets out of the city. But it's the same in all the national parks: You can't really do much with a pet. You can't take pets on trails, you can't take them cross country. You're restricted pretty much to roads and developed areas."

"People want to get their pets out of the city," said Van Valkenburg, senior ranger at Death Valley National Park. "But it's the same in all the national parks: You can't really do much with a pet. ... You can't take pets on trails, you can't take them cross country. You're restricted pretty much to roads and developed areas."

But not every visitor heeds those restrictions. Van Valkenburg, who has worked in the park for 10 years, said he has heard plenty of sad stories and occasionally seen the evidence.

"People bring their pets when they're camping, and we have a population of coyotes around Furnace Creek that have been protected since the 1930s. They don't have any fear of humans, and they've learned that this is a good place to be," he said.

"Occasionally people will leave a dog or a cat tied up-yes, people bring cats-and when they come back, there's just an empty leash. The coyotes get them. I've even heard stories of people going for walks with smaller dogs and having a coyote come up and try to grab them right off the leash."

At Yosemite National Park, spokeswoman Deb Schweizer said rangers file about 15 reports a year over dogs, either unleashed or in forbidden territory. Half of those result in citations, which carry a $50 fine.

More daunting threats can be found in national parks with bears, such as Yellowstone and Glacier in the Rockies. Not only do bears sometimes kill dogs, rangers said, they sometimes follow canine scents into campgrounds and other populated areas, putting visitors at risk.

At Yellowstone, that's not the only pet-related risk. Van Valkenburg, who worked in Yellowstone in 1985, remembers that on warm summer days some visitors would leave dogs locked in cars, windows cracked. When they returned and opened car doors or windows, the dog would leap out, spot a nearby pool of water and leap right in. But at Yellowstone, those pools are often thermal, with temperatures potentially fatal to animals.

So many dogs jumped into one such pool near a hiking trail head, Van Valkenburg said that "it was nicknamed 'Hot Dog Pool.' "

Cheryl Matthews, a Yellowstone spokeswoman, confirmed that despite rangers' best efforts the thermal springs problem has been a perennial one, though there have been no recent dog incidents.

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