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Federal report deems dogs the greatest risk to migratory birds

Off-leash dogs, disturbed birds throughout Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary

A federal report on Greater Victoria’s migratory bird sanctuaries says dogs pose the biggest risk to the safety and well-being of shorebirds and calls on governments, landowners, environmentalists and stakeholders to collectively prioritize the conservation of migratory species.

The 174-page report, initiated in 2019 and recently released to Black Press Media, thoroughly addresses interactions between dogs and migratory birds on each beach in the 1,700-hectare Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Some environmental advocates are calling the report, which was conducted by Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Pacific wildlife service, a miracle.

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“Many of the (migratory bird sanctuary) visitors bring their dogs, which provides benefits to both the dogs and their owners, but can also have significant negative consequences on wildlife, in particular on shoreline-associated migratory bird species,” the report concluded.

It added that dogs present the greatest source of disturbance for shore-based birds, with varying levels of dogs off-leash and chasing migratory birds occurring in all 28 study areas of the three sanctuaries. Affected birds falling under the Species at Risk Act include the great blue heron, red knot and lesser yellowlegs, and the report addresses 59 birds in detail.

“There’s evidence that these birds are being disturbed by dogs off-leash,” said Ken Brock, protected areas and stewardship manager for the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Pacific region.

Brock said additional concerns about boats disturbing migratory birds fall under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and provincial land use laws but added that regulations are less clear for boats.

“We want to be very clear what’s allowed, when it’s allowed, where it’s allowed and where it’s not.”

He said Environment and Climate Change Canada is working with municipalities to implement clearer signage, with some municipalities already changing dog bylaws. Still, Brock acknowledged that “one can always get more data” following the release of the federal report.

A public survey sent out for the report received a quarter of its responses (125 respondents) for Cadboro-Gyro Park.

Here, as well as at Willows Beach, great blue herons were the type of bird reportedly most disturbed by dogs. At Cattle Point, it was shorebirds and gulls. For Clover Point and Gonzales Beach, it was shorebirds specifically, although dogs were also noted to disturb passerines at Clover Point and even a moulting northern elephant seal at Gonzales Beach.

For Willows Beach, almost three in four respondents indicated 50 to 99 per cent of the dogs they saw there were off-leash, while entries from McNeill Bay reported more than 75 per cent of dogs observed on the beach were off-leash. More than half of respondents for Clover Point reported 75 per cent of dogs to be off-leash along the coastline.

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The report noted the public expressed confusion about differentiating between federal regulations and municipal bylaws that permit off-leash dogs.

“The status of our beaches isn’t necessarily that clear, legally speaking,” said Jacques Sirois, a local biologist and restoration specialist who said the sanctuaries are most used by wintering birds and see the greatest diversity of birds from October to April.

Sirois, who provided the federal government with photos of at-risk species, deemed the report “nothing short of a miracle” and “a step in the right direction that shows due diligence” as the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary reaches its centennial milestone in 2023.

With the report also addressing plants, mammals, molluscs and fish, he noted it’s about far more than just birds.

He said the report is “forcing a conversation to happen” and he hopes to see harmonization between municipal and federal laws in the sanctuaries and the opening of more dog parks, despite what he described as a lack of resources to enforce federal regulations.

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Jerry Donaldson, a community dog-walker who’s frequented Cadboro-Gyro Park for 32 years, said a compromise between environmental advocates and dog owners is also needed.

“There are times when dogs could play in the water without doing any harm at all,” Donaldson said.

Still, he said he supports the on-leash legislation “because it is the law,” adding the human side of the issue must be resolved before the policy side can be.

“I’ve seen some very ugly interactions on the beach.”

The report ended by saying collaboration between municipalities, provincial government, First Nations, private landowners, stewardship groups and stakeholders is needed to ensure “meaningful conservation outcomes for migratory birds” in the sanctuaries.


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