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Time for off-leash trails

Dog owners, in particular, must be especially disturbed by the news and many are no doubt thinking twice about allowing their pets on trails that they used to travel with relatively little worry. The threat of losing a beloved friend to a wolf is probably more of a deterrent than the threat of being fined for having a dog off-leash, which is technically not allowed within a national park.

But if you didn’t already know that, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, especially if you’ve spent any time on the trails near Jasper. Take a walk on any given day and you’ll see far more dogs off-leash than on. You might even run into a Parks Canada employee or a member of municipal council walking with an unleashed canine, as members of the Fitzhugh staff have from time to time. The owner of the dog that was killed, in fact, works for Parks Canada.

For the most part, though, the de facto off-leash arrangement works just fine, which is why it continues to happen in spite of the official rule against it. The tragic incident last week was only the second of its kind in 30 years in Jasper National Park, according to park officials.

But the untimely death of Helio should not, in our view, prompt stricter enforcement of the leash law. Rather, it should prompt a re-examination of why this law exists and whether it is effective for a community such as Jasper.

Especially now that the town’s only off-leash dog park is about to become a construction zone – work on the new high school is expected to begin early in 2012 – where are dog owners in Jasper expected to take their pets? Available real estate within the town boundaries is extremely hard to come by, yet there exists a network of trails around Jasper’s peripheries that, in any community outside of a national park, would be considered ideal land for an off-leash dog area.

So why not identify some of these trails as “dog-friendly” zones? They are already populated by off-leash animals as it stands and, once the fear of wolf attacks dies down and construction begins on the new high school, these numbers will likely only increase.

That’s not to say dogs should have free run wherever their owners please. There are legitimate concerns about protecting wildlife, for example, but these are mostly in areas further from town, in particular where sensitive caribou herds are situated and dogs are not allowed at all, even on-leash. On the trails closer to the town site, however, the threat of wildlife to dogs seems far greater than vice versa.

There is, of course, also concern for trail users who don’t like dogs. Many people are afraid of dogs, although one imagines these people typically aren’t out hiking in the woods, where coyotoes and foxes – and wolves – roam freely. Nevertheless dog owners ought to respect these people’s right to enjoy the trails, too.

But that’s just one more reason to designate some trails as off-leash areas. Keeping dogs contained to certain paths would enable those with canine phobia to stick to other routes. It would also enable easier enforcement of the leash law if the rules were applicable in a more limited area.

The specifics would need to be worked out, obviously, but in broad terms this seems preferable to the current situation. It would be better to have a targeted law that balances the needs of different groups than a general law that is almost universally ignored. 

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