FRISCO — As fun as it is to let dogs run off-leash, Colorado residents need to take special care to keep their pets away from wildlife during the spring.
Many wild animals are stressed after a long winter with little food, and some are going into their breeding season, according to state wildlife biologists. As they run to escape, deer and elk expend crucial energy that can lead to an increase in the mortality rate of the animals or their unborn calves and fawns.
Thus, a warning from Colorado Parks and Wildlife: Keep dogs under control and away from deer, elk and other wild animals, or face the possibility of steep fines and the loss of a beloved pet.
Dogs that are allowed to interact with wildlife are also at a significant risk of being injured or killed by a wild animal, or at risk of being put down by a peace officer enforcing state wildlife laws.
"The last thing any officer wants to do is to destroy someone's dog," said Ron Velarde, Northwest Regional Manager. "But pet owners should know that, because it is so harmful to wildlife, any law enforcement officer in Colorado is authorized by state statute to use whatever force is necessary to stop any dog that is chasing, injuring or killing a wild animal."
"By this time of year, deer and elk are just trying to survive the deep snow and lack of forage," said Libbie Miller, District Wildlife Manager in Steamboat Springs. "If dogs chase them, they quickly expend their already limited fat stores, leading to poor health and eventual death from starvation. That is what we are trying to prevent."
Wildlife managers say that although it may be legal to let dogs run free in some recreation areas, they strongly recommend keeping pets on a leash whenever encounters with animals are likely.
"The stress and injuries caused by dogs are concerns, but so are conflicts," said Velarde. "Each year, we investigate numerous incidents in which a person is injured by a wild animal. A common factor in many of these situations is that the victim's dog first approached and harassed the animal."
Velarde adds that because moose see dogs as a serious predatory threat, the large ungulates will aggressively try to stomp any dog that approaches it, often chasing it back to its owner who also becomes the target of the angry moose.
In 2013, wildlife officials in Colorado's Northwest Region investigated three incidents in which a moose injured a person. In two of the incidents, barking dogs running off-leash first approached the moose before it charged the dogs and their owners.
In the other case, a cow moose with a days-old calf charged and seriously injured a woman that walked her leashed dog near the animals. In 2012, another woman was seriously injured by a moose in Winter Park after the woman walked her dog too close to the cow and her calf. Earlier this year, officials in Steamboat Springs investigated an incident where a moose charged a woman snowshoeing with her unleashed dogs. The woman escaped with minor injuries.
Three of the moose in these encounters were put down by Colorado Parks and Wildlife out of an abundance of caution for human health and safety. Wildlife officials often make the difficult decision to destroy an animal that has injured a person to protect the public from future conflicts with the same animal, regardless of the circumstances.
"That can be the unfortunate result when people are irresponsible around wildlife," said Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins of Steamboat Springs. "We understand that people enjoy letting their dogs run loose, but we ask that they think twice about the possible consequences. It can be a terrible feeling to have caused the death of an animal that was instinctively defending itself, or its young, from your dog."
In addition, Haskins warns that mountain lions, bears or a pack of coyotes can easily make a meal of a dog.
"Predators do not differentiate between their natural prey and a dog," said Haskins. "You don't want to be in a situation where you watch your pet being eaten. The best way to keep this from occurring is to either keep the pet close to you on a short leash, or leave it at home if you are heading to an area where you might encounter wildlife."
Miller adds that in Steamboat Springs this year, officers have received numerous calls from the public reporting dogs that are harassing wildlife.
"We want people to get outdoors and have fun with their dogs, just keep them away from wild animals," said Miller. "We will be out actively enforcing our laws and doing what we need to do to protect our natural resource."
In addition to keeping dogs on a leash or at home, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has other suggestions for viewing and enjoying wildlife in a safe and ethical manner.
"Watch wild animals from a distance with binoculars, a camera lens or a spotting scope," said Watchable Wildlife Coordinator Trina Romero. "Remember, if the animal reacts to you or your dog, you are definitely too close."
To report any instance of dogs chasing wildlife, the public can call their local Colorado Parks and Wildlife office or Colorado State Patrol.
In Colorado, the fine for knowingly or negligently allowing a dog to harass wildlife is $274, including surcharges.
For more information about living with wildlife, go to www.wildlife.state.co.us/WildlifeSpecies/LivingWithWildlife/Pages/LivingWith.aspx.