We agree with Bow Valley Naturalists board member Colleen Campbell when she characterized a $115 fine for an off-leash dog that brought a mama bear into conflict with its owner as "pathetic."
Such a meagre slap on the wrist for a behaviour that wildlife agencies and managers are constantly warning us against is ineffective and does not even come close to meeting the expectations Bow Valley residents have when it comes to enforcing the rules inside our protected areas and parks.
One need only look a few kilometres to the west, to Banff National Park, for an example of a different set of consequences when it comes to actions that negatively affect wildlife.
In the national park, which is regulated under Canada's National Parks Act, a breach of the rules results in a mandatory criminal court appearance and if a guilty plea or verdict occurs, the judge has the discretion based on the seriousness of the incident to levy a fine of up to $25,000.
On federally managed lands, we have seen residents and visitors held accountable for their actions that harm the ecological integrity and processes of this landscape, which also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some examples include: picking calypso orchids at a campsite – $250 fine.
Scavenging for elk antlers in the woods and removing them from the park – $2,500 fine.
Destroying migratory bird nests – $27,000.
Taking a selfie at the secret waterfall inside an area closed to protect an endangered bird species at Johnston Canyon – $1,250.
We could go on, but it is clear that when it comes to the enforcement of rules related to human behaviours inside protected areas, the feds take things more seriously than the province of Alberta.
While many people were frustrated to hear about the recent incident where a hiker was charged at by a bear and bitten before using bear spary as a result of having their dog off leash, one can understand that sentiment extending to the resulting punishment for this person's irresponsible actions.
It has set off a convesation that isn't new to the valley, but reflects our values when it comes to recreating in the same places that wildlife live. The community is asking what more can be done to prevent these types of incidents from occurring? How can we change people's behaviour when it comes to having dogs off leash?
Steeper fines and court appearances could change behaviour, but that tends to happen after someone is punished and used as an example to deter others. It also requires more money to put boots on the ground to catch the rule breakers in the act, take them to court and prosecute them.
Some have suggested banning dogs altogether. This would go too far, as the best solution would be getting dog owners to follow the rules. Banning dogs punishes those who follow the rules, as well as those who don't.
What if Alberta Parks were to be really innovative and get outside the box to create a permit system for those who want to bring their dogs hiking or recreating in protected areas? The permit system would not have to be onerous – but by having to obtain a permit or licence (much like many Albertans already do to go hunting and fishing) there would be an opportunity to reinforce the rules and expectations.
The revenues can be used to pay for more staff to enforce the rules and in order to receive a licence for the dog to be in a park (much like the way we have to licence our dogs to live in a municipality) owners would have to sign a declaration that they understand and will comply with the rules.
We float this idea and invite others to come forward with theirs for decision makers to consider, because we can expect to continue to see human wildlife conflicts involving off-leash dogs inside Alberta parks unless something changes.