EASTHAM — The conservation commission has voted to allow dogs to continue to be off leash during the summer on trails under its authority as long as their owners can control them with voice commands.
The commission had considered adding a regulation prohibiting off-leash dogs from June 15 to Labor Day, an idea that drew heavy opposition from local dog owners last spring.
The focus of the discussion has been on the 70-acre Wiley Park and Nickerson conservation area, categorized as a priority habitat for rare plants and wildlife in Mass Wildlife’s Natural Heritage Endangered Species Program.
Members of both the conservation commission and the open space committee had become concerned about increased erosion and destruction of delicate habitat. After receiving more than 100 emails from dog owners, the two committees decided to host listening sessions in April, at which they laid out their environmental concerns and listened to what dog owners had to say.
During one session, conservation commission chair Karen Strauss said she was worried about new trails being created, particularly to the ponds. “We’ve seen evidence that people brought saws and loppers to cut trees and shrubs,” Strauss said. “These openings have been used for beach chairs, picnics, and recreation, for launching kayaks and stand-up paddle boards.” The activity had increased erosion and degraded vegetation, she said.
Following a June hearing on the draft regulations, the commission agreed to table the matter for the summer while a survey was conducted to determine what was happening during dog walks on conservation lands.
Commission member Michael Harnett and Ed Daniels, president of the 220-member Eastham Dog Owners’ Association, organized the monitoring effort. The results showed that dogs were mostly well behaved.
“The main issue was during Covid, when groups of up to 18 or 20 would gather,” Harnett said in a phone interview this week. “Each one had at least one dog and possibly more than one, and the dogs ran wild and just ripped up the place.
The monitoring, Harnett said, revealed some digging but nothing like the kinds of damage seen earlier. “So, we voted, at this point, to leave them off leash,” he said.
The commission did enact a rule that all dogs remain leashed in the parking lot and until they reach the trails. Other rules include that no more than three dogs are allowed per walker; leashes can be no longer than 10 feet; dogs and walkers may not enter posted areas for nesting or habitat restoration areas; walkers and pets must remain or trails and designated areas such as parking and beach areas; and owners are responsible for removal and disposal of pet waste.
Reached by phone this week, Daniels said he and the dog owners’ association are pleased with the commission’s decision. “Keeping dogs on leash in the parking lots is a no-brainer,” he said. Daniels also said clearer markers could encourage people to stay on the trails.
During the Nov. 14 meeting when the commission took its vote, Stephanie Sykes, the town’s new animal control officer, said education through signage and more monitoring of the trails should help address issues.
In a phone interview, Strauss said that one of the concerns at Wiley Park had been “conflicts between unleashed dogs and other users.”
Daniels sees education as the solution to that problem. “Some dogs shouldn’t be off leash,” he said. “The owner should know that, and if they don’t know, we need to educate them on how a dog off leash should behave.”
“I would also like to encourage people who are in our conservation areas and have conflicts with animals or people to report it to the police or conservation department so we have a record of it over time,” Strauss said.
It’s a matter of everyone in the community cooperating, according to Daniels. He recalled a time years ago when “there were a lot of complaints about dog feces being left at Wiley Park.” The association got to work on that problem: “We went out and did a poop pickup party, and there was a ridiculous amount of waste.” He estimated the group collected 50 to 60 pounds of dog waste and litter.
“We advocated through our membership that we wanted to keep things clean,” Daniels said, and they put up boxes with dog waste bags. After a while, “it wasn’t a problem anymore,” he said. The dog owners’ association hopes for a similar outcome when it comes to unleashed dogs.
Bike and Kayak Rules
The commission voted to enforce a provision prohibiting bike riding on the Wiley and Nickerson land, a rule that was in place but not enforced; now it will be posted. While monitors didn’t spot bikes during the summer survey, they did see evidence of bike use on the trails. “The trails are narrow and heavily vegetated so you can’t see very far,” Harnett said. “Bikes tend to go fairly fast.”
Under the new regulations, those using watercraft like kayaks and canoes must enter the ponds in Wiley and Nickerson using the public boat ramp at Great Pond Beach.
Both Strauss and open space committee chair Frances Lewis said development of a comprehensive land management plan is vital to protecting conservation areas. What they’re looking for, Lewis wrote in an email, is “to find an appropriate and sustainable balance between protecting and preserving these special resources and community use for passive recreation so that the town can continue to benefit from all that these spaces offer us.”