Poll: Owners don't always realize dogs' impact on wildlife

Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge has been many things: an Indian gathering ground for wapato, or swamp potato; a city garbage dump; the proposed site for a marine and industrial park.

But its latest incarnation, as an unofficial dog park, is raising the hackles of Portland Parks & Recreation, which manages the 160-acre site on the east bank of the Willamette River just north of Oaks Amusement Park in the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood.

A new survey of dog owners by a Portland State University class on neighborhoods and watersheds showed that many at Oaks Bottom are ignoring city leash laws.

And most of the approximately 75 people who responded to the survey Ñ conducted between December and February Ñ said they thought of Oaks Bottom first as a dog park and not as a wildlife refuge, according to the class's teaching assistant, Heather Gundersen.

'There were a lot of written comments,' Gundersen said. 'Such as, 'If it was someone's lawn I would care about my dog's impact, but because it's a wildlife refuge, I don't.' '

The survey results were bad news to Mark Wilson, an ecologist with the parks bureau's Natural Resources Program who met with the class March 19.

'What I carried away (from the meeting) was that people not only don't understand, but don't acknowledge, that this is a natural area for the protection of wildlife, even though there are signs,' Wilson said. 'We've got a bit of education to do.'

Oaks Bottom, which the city acquired in 1959, was officially designated as a wildlife refuge in 1988. This means that it is being managed to protect wildlife and habitat, not as a manicured park, said Evelyn Brenes, assistant to parks Director Charles Jordan.

Wilson, whose department asked the PSU class to conduct the survey, said the apparent need for better educational signs at Oaks Bottom comes at a time when Parks & Recreation is pinched for both budget and staff.

'A lot of natural areas in Portland are really suffering right now,' said Wilson, whose program manages approximately 5,000 acres within the Portland city limits, including at Oaks Bottom, Forest Park and Powell Butte Park.

'We're really fortunate to have such land; many other cities don't have what we have,' he said. 'But a lot of these places are really being loved to death.'

Who let the dogs out?

Barry Messer, who teaches the PSU class, said the Oaks Bottom project started last summer with a general survey of refuge users to identify issues at the park.

'Dogs was one of them,' he said.

The class then prepared a 10-question follow-up survey. It was made available in a box next to a sign that identifies the park as a wildlife refuge and informs users that dogs are allowed there only on a leash.

Class members also walked the refuge's trails and asked dog owners to complete the survey.

Wilson said he was especially troubled by the number of respondents who didn't see that unleashed dogs have a significant impact on natural areas like Oaks Bottom.

'There was no understanding of the impact that dogs on the loose, and their scent, have on wildlife,' he said.

Wilson has seen unleashed dogs with refuge ducks in their mouths more than once. But he said unleashed dogs have an even bigger impact on the refuge's ground-nesting birds, whose feeding patterns can be affected by the presence of dogs, and its amphibians, whose eggs they may dislodge.

Wilson, who lives near Oaks Bottom, said he has seen an increase in the number of dogs there in recent years, including dogs being exercised by dog-walking services.

'People show up with three, four, five dogs,' he said. 'Some let them off their leashes immediately. Then you have a pack situation. That's very troubling.'

Few off-leash parks

At least some of the increased use is driven by the limited number of off-leash dog parks in Portland, Wilson said. One of the survey items, 'There aren't enough off-leash areas in the Portland area,' drew 'over the top' levels of agreement from respondents, he said.

Although many dog owners still treat Mount Tabor as an off-leash dog park, it was officially closed to that purpose in 1999, Brenes said.

That leaves only Gabriel Park in Southwest Portland and Chimney Park, East Delta Park and West Delta Park in North Portland open to dogs.

Wilson said he disagrees with survey respondents who said the signs at Oaks Bottom are easy to read and understand.

'I think our signage is very poor,' he said. 'Improved signage at Oaks Bottom is at the top of my list.'

Contact Janine Robben at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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