Wildlife officials strongly suspect an off-leash dog is responsible for traumatic and most likely fatal injuries suffered by a bighorn sheep in Kananaskis Country this week.
The incident highlights the need for dog owners in the Bow Valley to keep their dogs on leash because of wildlife, which was the subject of the most recent Wildsmart speakers series event on Monday (Dec. 2).
Alberta Parks senior park ecologist Melanie Percy spoke about finding ways for dogs and wildlife to co-exist and spoke specifically about the effect off-leash pets have on various wildlife species.
“There are numerous cases of this every year, because people let their dogs roam at large and they have no control over them, and it is so hard to call a dog back when it is starting to chase prey and in a lot of cases because our dogs have been domesticated over a long period of time they aren’t efficient hunters anymore,” Percy said. “That is good on the one hand, but it also means animals are left maimed or injured because the dogs were following this instinct, but they didn’t really have the power to carry it through.”
In addition to direct attacks on wildlife, off-leash dogs can cause stress by chasing animals, as well as chase them onto roads or off cliffs.
Alberta Parks conservation officer Glenn Naylor said this week that is what he believes happened to the bighorn ram.
Naylor said conservation officers were informed by a hunting guide last Wednesday (Nov. 27) that the guide noticed a blood trail and followed it to find the ram – 400 metres above the Smith Dorrien Road where it overlooks Grassi Lakes – still alive and suffering severe trauma to its reproductive organs.
“There were lots of dog tracks and people tracks,” he said. “We suspect strongly the ram was chased by a dog off leash and the ram lost its footing at the top of the cliff and it fell approximately 40 metres or 120 feet.
“We decided to leave it because if this ram has any hope of survival it should be left undisturbed, but chances are it will die of blood loss.”
Bighorn sheep are known to be sure-footed in their Rocky Mountain habitat, which is why Naylor said he believes the animal was being chased when it fell.
“It would never move that quickly onto a cliff face the way it did unless it was being chased,” he said. “Something caused it great stressed.”
Percy said even when wildlife are not caught by dogs or chased into danger, being chased causes significant stress, increased heart rate, and means the animal is spending less time foraging for food or caring for its young.
“What can happen over time is that wildlife are just so tired of being harassed by dogs they will abandon that habitat patch or be displaced,” she said. “Research has shown the more predictable our movement patterns are for wildlife, the more they can adapt.
“If you have a dog running off leash that leads to a certain level of unpredictability and is more likely to result in displacement or habitat abandonment.”
Percy said the best way to co-exist with wildlife and dogs is to keep them on a leash in addition to other mitigation measures like carrying bear spray.
“Many factors play a role in how wildlife will respond to a dog including species of wildlife, past interactions with dogs, number of dogs involved and the number of wild animals involved … it is basically situation dependent,” she said. “When it comes to the Bow Valley, I would keep your dog on a leash all the time even if you don’t care about the wild animals – care about your dogs because cougars can do a lot of damage, they kill dogs routinely.
“I can’t overstate enough the importance of having a leash, avoiding wooded areas at dawn and dusk and carrying bear spray.”