Dog havoc threatens public trail access

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Off-leash dogs are terrorizing turkeys, killing chickens, stressing wildlife and damaging native plant habitat at the Isham Family Farm as they roam free on the publicly- managed Oak View Hill trail system on the property. 

The situation, which has worsened over the past year as trail use and dog ownership have both increased through the pandemic, has town officials considering closing off the trails to the public. 

“The voice control thing is honestly kind of a joke,” Williston Conservation Planner Melinda Scott said of the previous dog policy — which allowed dogs to be off leash but under voice control — that was in place up until last spring.

Erin Alamed of the Humane Society of Chittenden County agrees. She said it’s rare for a person to have true voice control over their dog. 

“I think it’s a lovely idea. I don’t think it’s realistic,” she said, “because there are so many elements outside that you can’t predict. And you never know what the dog is actually thinking. Some dogs are great at coming back to their owners no matter what. But I think most dogs you really just can’t trust that.” 

With dogs romping through the meadows that line the trail system, and dog waste bags dotting the trails, landowners Mike Isham and Helen Weston requested a leash-only dog policy be implemented. In May, the town posted the new rule on signs along the trails. 

“The signs are pretty clear what the expectations are, but it hasn’t really seemed to solve the problem,” Scott said. “A lot of people are ignoring the signs and allowing their dogs off leash.”

Isham and Weston have focused their work at the fifth-generation farm on creating a haven for birds, wildlife and native plants. They put land on the west side of Oak Hill Road into a conservation easement with a public trail corridor managed by the town. Each week, year-round, dozens of dog owners use the trail, Weston said. 

“I have spoken with many individuals about the rules and been ignored multiple times,” Weston wrote in an email to the Observer. “Many dogs are still off leash, many bags of excrement still left behind, and many people and dogs not staying on designated trails. (Our) environmental work is compromised with each time these directives are not followed.” 

Scott has drafted a proposal for the selectboard to consider banning dogs from the property. The selectboard is expected to take up the proposal in February.

“We’ve discussed closing the trail to all uses, at least temporarily, just to get the message out, but we decided to try a no dog policy (first),” Scott said. “If people don’t comply with the no dog rule, we may have no choice but to just close the trail. “I understand people’s desire to let their dogs run but it does have impacts.”

The town manages seven of what it calls “Country Parks” — conserved natural areas totaling about 500 acres with 12 miles of trails crossing both public and private land. Dogs are permitted off leash under voice control on the public land, but must be leashed when trails cross into private land. This does not include the Catamount Community Forest, acquired by the town in 2020, where dogs are prohibited. The Oak View Hill trail system is the only one of the town’s natural areas that runs through working farmland.

“This really is a unique situation because the trails are embedded into their farm where they have all of their other operations going on,” Scott said.

Weston said she was seeing up to 100 dogs per week on the trails during the warmer months. Alamed, the director of community outreach at the Humane Society, said that the pandemic has spurred an increase in dog ownership. 

“We’ve seen cats, dogs and small animals just flying out the door getting adopted in record time as people are just looking for companions since they’ve been home for so long now,” she said. “People are reaching out desperate to adopt and we can’t quite fill the need for the community.”

[Note: This story has been updated to clarify that dogs are not permitted at the Catamount Community Forest.]