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Worries about wildlife prompt push for dog ban in South Anchorage estuary

Campbell Creek empties out of Campbell Lake on May 16 at the Campbell Creek Estuary Park, at left. The Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge are spearheading an effort to ban pets from this fragile South Anchorage estuary. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

In the summer of 2014, volunteer caretakers at the Campbell Creek Estuary spotted something that alarmed them: On tidal flats filled with nesting birds, there was a tent, a campfire, three men and a dog.

And was that … a goat?

It was. The campers and their menagerie were one of the more colorful examples of rule-breaking that's making wildlife advocates worry about the city's newest natural area, a fragile 60-acre wetlands in South Anchorage that opened to the public in 2013. The land surrounds the last stretch of Campbell Creek before it flows into Cook Inlet. It was preserved in part because it is a nesting area for birds.

But some visitors can't resist veering from defined trails into the tall grasses on the muddy coastal land. Sometimes they bring animals and bikes. Now the dedicated band of volunteers that work to preserve the estuary want a legal ban on dogs, cats and other pets, a law change that could mean fines for rule-breakers.

The volunteers, who have been collecting photo and video evidence of the problem, say it's necessary for the wildlife the estuary was designed to protect.

"If you want people to be able to enjoy nature undisturbed … you let people stay on the trails and go to the observation decks," said Barbara Svarny Carlson, the executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. "And (make sure) there are not domestic animals displacing the wildlife."

To reach the estuary, you drive through neighborhood streets branching south from West Dimond Boulevard in the Jewel Lake area. The land used to be privately owned and marked with "No Trespassing" signs. In 2008, the city and the nonprofit Great Land Trust started raising money to buy the land for conservation. Stakeholders later agreed it would be managed differently from most parks in Anchorage, as a quiet place for shorebirds and wildlife but with trails and overlooks where people could view them.

On a recent morning, Carlson pointed to a pile of dog poop sitting next to the Campbell Creek Estuary's small parking lot. It's been a common sight the past five years, she said.

Barbara Carlson of Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, right, walks with a reporter past a sign prohibiting dogs in the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area on Wednesday. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

From there, Carlson walked past signs that read "No Dogs." The rule was developed by her group, the city and other stakeholders to manage the estuary in the absence of rangers. But it isn't currently enforceable by law, which is what Carlson and other volunteers hope to change.

Dirt paths weave through tall grasses and trees. Carlson named off chirping birds by sounds, like a ruby-crowned kinglet. In an observation blind at the end of one trail, Carlson pointed out nesting sandhill cranes amid the yellow-green sedges and grasses of the tidal flats.

"We have sandhill cranes, they're right there," said Ellen Kazary, executive director of Great Land Trust. "This is a bit of a trade. If you want that right here in our backyard, dogs have the ability to impact that."

The estuary is one of the city's few public access points to the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, a 16-mile stretch of coastline between Point Woronzof and Potter Creek. About one-third of the Campbell Creek Estuary is within the refuge boundaries, at the point where it slopes off a bluff and into marshland.

Dogs are allowed in the state wildlife refuge, except at times in Potter Marsh, said Joe Meehan, the refuges program coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.

But Meehan said the state encourages dog owners to use the refuge responsibly, which might mean keeping dogs on a leash. The state also has laws against harassing waterfowl, he said.

Most of the coast surrounding Anchorage has the same species of birds and is accessible to dogs. But Campbell Creek Estuary was always intended to be dog-free, Kazary said. The master plan for the estuary recommends it, citing sensitive wildlife habitat. Carlson said the estuary was set aside for wildlife and helps boost species that are in decline.

During public meetings in 2010 and 2011, the city's parks and recreation department was hesitant to support formal, legal protections. John Rodda, the city parks and recreation director, said at the time he wanted to wait and see what would happen.

Rodda said this week he's neutral on the issue. He said he feels most dog owners are respectful but a few are not.

A bird viewing blind offers views of the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

At a recent Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, people who live in the adjacent neighborhood said they'd like to walk their dogs in the estuary area.

But Carlson said it's time for formal protections. In November 2017, the area's camper hosts — part of a program that allows RV owners to park in lots in exchange for keeping an eye on public areas — reported an uptick in the number of dogs coming through, Carlson said.

While most people who learn of the rules abide by them, there are repeat offenders who insist on coming back with dogs, Carlson said. It's led to some confrontations.

"I pay my taxes. I'm going to keep bringing my dogs here until somebody comes and arrests me," one dog owner told Carlson, according to one of her reports.

Before Campbell Creek Estuary opened to the public, Carlson's organization agreed to help the parks department keep an eye on things. Her organization acts as a steward of the state-owned Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, the area that extends from Point Woronzof southeast to Potter Creek. The volunteers include nature writers, retired architects, attorneys, biologists, an audiologist, a minister, a nurse and a Realtor.

Carlson said her organization realized no one would be watching the estuary entrance to help visitors understand how to take care of it.

Quickly, problems popped up. In reports that documented bird species spotted by volunteers, Carlson also catalogued a variety of rule-breaking in the first 10 months after the opening. Neighbors complained that people were driving in late at night and drinking and partying in the parking lot. There was trash and vandalism; volunteers found bike tracks in the mud on the trails.

Then there were the pets. Right away, volunteers documenting nesting sandhill cranes saw people taking dogs through the marshes and the nesting area.

"Birds were scattering," Carlson said.

Photos and videos accompany Carlson's reports. Several show people with dogs emerging from the woods. In another, a cat with a collar sprawls out for a belly rub.

In late morning on July 5, 2014, volunteers in the Campbell Creek Estuary saw the tent across the tidal flats. There were the three men with the dog and the goat. A video, posted to YouTube and titled "3 Guys and a Goat!?", shows the men walking northwest and the goat trotting along after them.

"It is certain that camping, having a goat, and building a fire were not legal," Carlson wrote in her July 2014 report.

It isn't exactly clear the campsite was located within the Campbell Creek Estuary, but the volunteer who took the video said it was most likely at least in the state-owned wildlife refuge. A police officer said he wasn't sure of the jurisdiction, Carlson said in her report. On a holiday weekend, the incident highlighted the management challenges for the area, Carlson said.

Dog owners can walk dogs almost anywhere else in and around Anchorage, Carlson said. There are seven off-leash dog parks in the city, and more are opening, she said. Two are nearby, off Jewel Lake Road and at the South Anchorage Sports Park.

Carlson's organization came up with a script to help volunteers talk to dog owners and explain the rules. For roaming cats, Carlson said she has a neighbor who built a kennel for their hunting cats.

The proposed ban on dogs and other pets has gained a lot of traction since last fall. The four surrounding community councils sent letters of support. Earlier this month, the city's Parks and Recreation Commission, an advisory body, supported the ban. The Anchorage Assembly would be the governing body to eventually pass the ordinance. Carlson got letters of support from Great Land Trust and a number of other organizations.

If it's approved, it would be an unusual legal restriction in a wilderness area in a city that's crazy about dogs. Carlson said her group doesn't take it lightly. She and many of the volunteers are also dog owners, she said.

But they don't bring them to the estuary, she said.

A sandhill crane feeds in the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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