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Visiting wildlife refuges with your dog is a good alternative to national parks

Visiting wildlife refuges with your dog is a good alternative to national parks. Anyone who has visited national parks with their dog knows that many areas are off limits to their four legged friend. Many national parks allow dogs only on roads and in campgrounds, with little or no access to trails at all. 

“Generally, leashed pets can go where cars can: on roads, in picnic areas and sometimes in campgrounds – but not on trails,” The Wilderness Society reports. “There may be exceptions for short treks near Visitor Centers or campgrounds.”

There are a few parks that are more dog friendly than most. Acadia National Park in Maine has 100 miles of trails open to leashed dogs and 45 miles of carriage roads. Acadia even has a ‘Bark Ranger’ program for dogs. Only 10 of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park’s 500 trails exclude dogs. Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve of Colorado allows dogs to explore the massive splendor of the dunes, but they’re not welcome anywhere in the backcountry. 

National seashores like Padre Island in Texas are sometimes more dog friendly than national parks, even though they’re both managed by the National Park Service. Unfortunately for many who like hiking, camping and enjoying the outdoors with their dogs, these parks are the exception rather than the rule.       

This isn’t the final word for all federal land though. The US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land doesn’t offer all the amenities that national parks do, as camping is necessarily primitive in many places and visitor centers aren’t available to answer every question or help plan trips. However, with less amenities comes the added freedom of less regulations, including regulations on where your four legged friend may go. Most national forest and BLM land, including areas with popular trails, allow leashed dogs. 

For those who want the comfort of a visitor center and well maintained infrastructure, there’s another option for recreating out of doors that many may have never considered. National wildlife refuges much like national parks are part of the US federal government conservation infrastructure. The first national wildlife refuge was created by President Theodore Roosevelt over 100 years ago to protect birds. Today, the wildlife refuge system has grown enormously. There is a wildlife refuge in every state, and one is within an hour drive of every major US city. 

I am currently volunteering as a work camper at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Aransas was originally founded as a refuge for waterfowl, with only a small portion regularly open to the public, the rest left as wildlife habitat. I was surprised to learn that dogs are allowed everywhere that people are allowed on the refuge. This makes sense because despite the name ‘refuge’, hunting is allowed for feral hogs and deer at Aransas. Many wildlife refuges allow hunting and what more traditional hunting companion is there than a dog? For this reason, some of the wildlife refuges allow dogs only during certain seasons. 

Some state refuges also only allow dogs explicitly for hunting (as in some of Colorado’s state refuges). Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine allows dogs only on the Rachel Carson Trail, however there are only three total trails within the refuge. In a mirror opposite of national parks, excluding dogs from national wildlife refuges seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Of course, each refuge is different and rules change over time. 

It is interesting though, since a justification for excluding dogs from national parks is often that they disturb wildlife. In John Steinbeck’s Classic – Travels With Charley: In Search of America, he tells of how a park ranger warns him about dogs reacting to bears upon entrance to Yellowstone National Park and his poodle, Charley’s fury over encountering a bear.

“Less than a mile from the entrance I saw a bear beside the road, and it ambled out as though to flag me down. Instantly a change came over Charley. He shrieked with rage. His lips flared, showing wicked teeth that have some trouble with a dog biscuit. He screeched insults at the bear, which hearing, the bear reared up and seemed to me to overtop Rocinante.”

Perhaps because of encounters like this, Yellowstone National Park is very restrictive when it comes to dogs. Pets are not allowed on trails, boardwalks, in the backcountry or thermal pools. In fact, dogs are allowed no more than 100 feet from roads at all times, only in developed areas, making a trip to Yellowstone with a dog pointless for many. If bears are the concern though, regulations at Kodiak Wildlife Refuge turn the rules on their head. 

Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is home to the largest of the brown bears in the world. The area also hosts one of the largest bear population densities anywhere. The nearly 2 million acres of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge were set aside by Franklin Roosevelt specifically to protect the special bears in 1941. Like many places in Alaska, the wildlife refuge is remote – accessible only by float plane or boat. Despite the logistics involved in getting to Kodiak, cabins with heating stoves are available for $45 per night and dogs are allowed with no additional fees. In fact, there are virtually no restrictions where your dog can go on Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, barring physical restrictions. 

It seems wildlife refuges take a slightly different approach to interactions between wildlife and dogs. It’s often stated that dog restrictions protect the dogs as well as wildlife and this is certainly true. However, wildlife refuges like Kodiak with its large bears or Aransas with its alligators allow dogs and their owners a certain level of risk.

With more freedom and risk comes some level of implicit self responsibility as well. If dogs are to be allowed in areas where wild things also live, it’s important that dog owners respect those wild creatures. Without respect and foresight, people come into conflict with alligators or bears or other potentially threatening animals through their dogs. With responsibility though, enjoying wildlife refuges with a dog couldn’t be more natural.        

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Zivica Kerkez

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