Letting Your Dog Off-Leash In The Woods

May 18, 2020

Did you know that right now there is a restriction on which areas you are able to run your dog off-leash? The Masked Biologist does, and he shares it with us in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

Right now is what my wife and I refer to as the time of sadness. Not for us, we are fine. It’s for our chocolate Labrador retriever. He lives to run in the woods. Sure, he loves a variety of activities, like sneaking into people’s laps, going for a ride to any business with a drive-thru, even simple walks around town are a delight. But he really loves running in the woods. We hunt whenever we can, going for grouse, ducks, and the occasional pheasant in the fall, but once the snow gets too deep the hunting gear gets stowed and we idle down until spring.

So why would spring make the masked Labrador sad? Well, he only gets to run until April 15th. After that, the woods are off limits to him until the summer is well on its way to over. There is a state law, NR 17.04(2)(a), that prohibits you from taking a dog onto Department lands from April 15th to July 31st unless they are on a leash 8’ long or less. That includes the state forest, state wildlife areas, any properties that are owned and managed by the Department of Natural Resources. This makes my dog very sad.

The law is well-intentioned, meant to keep dogs from injuring or killing nesting birds and destroying nests. Ground-nesting birds like many waterfowl, ruffed grouse, turkeys, and a variety of songbirds build their nests right on the ground. Even if your dog doesn’t intend to hurt the hen or eat eggs, they could scare her away and accidentally step on the eggs. Every time a hen has to evacuate from the nest in a hurry, they leave a lot of scent behind, and oftentimes they will eliminate waste which adds more scent for predators like raccoons, skunks and foxes to use to find the nest.

Here’s the thing that troubles me, though. This law does not apply on most other public lands up here. In fact, the research I did told me the only other ownerships that have a similar law in Wisconsin are US Fish and Wildlife Service waterfowl production areas. And we don’t really have those up here. We have other state-owned lands, and county forests, industrial forests, and of course the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. None of those other ownerships have this extended period of restricted use. I don’t have any data on this, but from what I can tell over the last 15 years or so in northern Wisconsin, I have seen no difference in game and nongame bird production on lands that restrict dog activity compared to those that do not. In fact, the birds I see depend far more on effective forest management regardless of ownership or other restrictions.

This is a tricky one for me. I can see both sides. I don’t like it when people run their pointers on nesting woodcock. And I can see that it is good to do everything possible to minimize loss of or disturbance to ruffed grouse nests, especially considering recent concerns about population numbers. On the other hand, dog owners lose one of their uses of these public properties for three and a half months. Which is the right way? I really don’t know, but it would be an excellent opportunity for research.

Granted, I could take the masked Labrador out on county or national forests and let him run free, but I choose not to because it doesn’t feel right for me. Besides, right now there are all kinds of other temptations out there, like baby porcupines, newborn fawns, and wolves raising pups at rendezvous sites. So for us, even though it makes him sad, it is best for now to limit him to swimming to get his exercise and save running in the woods for when we prepare for another exciting autumn of hunting.