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September 4, 2012
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Snowmass area residents weigh in on dogs-on-trails discussion

SNOWMASS VILLAGE - Earlier this summer, an aspect of the Sky Mountain Park management plan developed by Snowmass Village, Aspen, and Pitkin County officials that prohibited dogs from the trails in the interior of the park sparked a heated discussion about the issue. The conversation focused primarily around Rim Trail North and Sky Mountain Park, but some residents see it as part of a larger trend toward a less dog-friendly atmosphere in Snowmass Village.

Rim Trail North has long had a dog prohibition that was never enforced. Public Works director Hunt Walker brought the ban to light more than a year ago, saying the ban was created because the town acquired that land parcel primarily for wildlife protection.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Mike Porras declined to comment on this particular issue, but he said in general dogs need to be under control for the protection of wild animals as well as their own safety.

"Dogs, domesticated as they are, are not too far removed from their wild ancestors," Porras said. When they encounter an animal in the wild, such as a young fawn, "they quickly revert to those instincts. They can severely injure or kill wildlife."

Dogs can also endanger themselves and their owners. Porras gave the example of a dog harassing a bull moose, which will often try to kill the pet if it sees it as a predator, and running back to its owner with the moose behind it. Some predators, especially mountain lions, can see pets as prey. A bear killed a beagle owned by residents Jeff and Sue Tippet in late July.

"Our recommendation is no matter where you are in Colorado, it's always good to have your dog under control," Porras said.

In May, the town council voted 2-1 to accept the Sky Mountain Park management plan with the exception of the dog prohibition, meaning that it would not apply on land parcels owned by the town, and the allowance of hunting. If the council had maintained that stance, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails staff would have recommended not going forward with the construction of connections from town trails to those on county property.

At the June 18 meeting, county land steward Gary Tennenbaum suggested that the council could accept the prohibition on the interior of the park, so that connectors to those trails could move forward, but work on lifting the prohibition on the Rim Trail. Tennenbaum said the county would consider building the connection to Rim Trail, dubbed Rimline, if the town of Snowmass Village successfully enforced a leash law there. Seventy-five percent would be deemed successful, he said in a memo to the council.

Peter and Adele Plantec, residents who live on Sinclair Road, say they could take or leave Sky Mountain Park, but they want to continue walking their dogs on Rim Trail North, which is convenient for them and has water for their pets, as they always have. Adele Plantec said if the ban had always been enforced, she would feel differently about the ban.

"Anything that could have happened has happened," she said in regard to the impact on wildlife.

The Plantecs voiced their concerns at multiple council meetings.

The Plantecs don't use leashes with their dogs generally but use voice control and electronic collars. They argue that most dogs are less aggressive when they're allowed off-leash, and that it's safe if the dogs are comfortable around other animals and socialized. Peter Plantec has said that the dogs have not harassed elk when they've encountered them on the trail.

"The point is dogs shouldn't be on a leash, but dogs should be under control," Adele Plantec said.

Porras too said that "under control" doesn't always necessarily mean on a leash, because some owners have complete control of their dogs without them.

"However, you still face that risk of dogs chasing animals or being attacked by other animals," he said.

Elk are not the only species mentioned in the biological report informing the management decisions, however. The report also lists concerns with dogs flushing nesting birds, spread of diseases, prairie dog and mule deer activity, a decreased presence of native predators and the spread of noxious weeds through seeds on dogs' fur or paws.

Sharing the trail

To the Plantecs, the prohibitions are part of a trend toward an anti-dog attitude. They pointed to the trail maps produced by the town, which used to display photos of hikers, then hikers and bikers, and now just cyclists.

"They've completely gotten rid of hikers," said Adele Plantec. She said she understands that the town needs to bring in business, but she doesn't like being told how to live her life. The Plantecs have lived in Snowmass Village more than 30 years.

"I object to them objecting to me living my life the way I always have," she said.

Peter Plantec even speculated that the changes are a result of lobbying by cyclists, saying, "it's a very wealthy sport."

"It appeared to me that it was decided early on in the planning to go for a complete dog ban and to build the case accordingly," said Snowmass resident and dog owner John Borthwick, who said he doesn't hike the north Rim Trail often because of the heavy bike traffic. Borthwick attended the May 21 Town Council meeting. "I saw no evidence that they ever gave serious consideration to alternative scenarios where dogs would be allowed. In the end, the lack of baseline data and conclusions drawn from sketchy scientific evidence left me unconvinced of the veracity of the analysis regarding dog impacts versus other permitted uses."

Cyclist Steve Marolt, who resides in Woody Creek but does all his mountain biking in Snowmass Village, said in early August that he's ridden the Government Trail and Sky Mountain Park this summer but hasn't seen a dog on any of those trails in about 10 years. Marolt said he doesn't think dogs have much more impact than other users.

"If they're off a leash, most dogs will chase the wildlife," Marolt said. "If the dogs are on a leash, how can they have any more impact than a horse or a bike?"

Marolt said dogs and bikes don't mix if owners and cyclists aren't responsible, giving the example of a German shepherd that broke its leash and came after him on his bike. But Marolt doesn't think that means eliminating one user group from the trail.

"I would hate to tell a dog owner he couldn't take a hike or a walk up there with a dog," Marolt said. "It just comes down to common sense. There's room enough for dogs and bikes, people just have to use their heads."

The Plantecs have experienced a lack of trail courtesy from cyclists - usually not from local bikers, though, they said. Adele Plantec is for sharing the trail, too, but not for being treated differently than other users.

"It's ridiculous to say that these people who do damage should be allowed to and these people should not," said Adele Plantec. "Coexistence is what I'm saying."

Snowmass Village resident Mary Beth Blake is a biker and a dog owner. She says she used to walk her dogs leashed on Rim Trail North every day.

"I really don't care about Sky Mountain Park. I wouldn't consider walking a dog up there," she said because of how exposed the land is and how hot it would be for a dog.

Adele Plantec said trails on the ski area - where there's talk of allowing dogs off leash on some parts - would be an option, but that if they had to ride the gondola to get to them, she and her husband wouldn't be able to afford to do that every day.

Blake sees wild animals regularly in her neighborhood and doesn't think hiking with dogs makes a lot of difference.

"I think we're making a mountain out of a molehill," she said. "I don't think it's that big of a deal."

jbeathard@snowmasssun.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Sep 4, 2012 03:13PM Published Sep 4, 2012 03:11PM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.