This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
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Lily, Lulu, Lucy, Eileen, Maya and Jolene are all pretty good girls.
That’s because Linda Gregersen, a full-time dog walker and owner of “Doggy’s Big Day,” makes sure to screen the dogs she takes hiking. Only friendly, well-behaved pups get to hit the trail off leash. But, Gregersen qualifies, she will train dogs to stick with the pack.
On a quickly warming Friday morning, Lily, a teenage mini schnauzer, bounds in the tall grass like a bunny but eagerly heads back toward Gregersen when she calls. Lilly gets a treat from Gregersen’s blue fanny pack. Gregersen, with a deep summer tan and long auburn hair, makes walking seven dogs look like a surprisingly easy, even zen, endeavor.
She has 10 years of experience on her side and passion for work she believes is critical for the well-being of dogs and their owners.
“Anybody who knows dogs knows that [for] most dogs you can’t really fulfill their exercise needs walking them on a leash around town,” Gregersen said. For younger dogs and high energy breeds, she believes that going on a walk in the woods is the best way to tucker them out.
“When we exercise we know that it’s beneficial not just for us physically, but it helps our mental state as well,” Gregersen said. “And it really is the same for the dogs.”
But providing that service became more difficult this past summer as the U.S. Forest Service began cracking down on commercial dog walkers hiking on the agency’s land in some popular Wasatch canyons. Walking dogs in exchange for payment on USFS land is a commercial enterprise, and as such, is against the federal rules, the agency says. (Although permits are distributed to ski resorts and even helicopter-skiing services, despite opposition from some environmentalists).
Other commercial ventures are also prohibited, including “unauthorized outfitting and guiding; commercial photography; shuttle services; selling or offering for sale any merchandise; and conducting any kind of work activity or service,” according to official USFS trail signage.
But owners of dog hiking businesses are reporting stricter enforcement this year. Particularly in the summer, many professional dog walkers have come to rely on the few dog-friendly canyons that provide shade and water. Under Salt Lake City ordinance, several nearby canyons are already off limits to all dogs. That’s because five canyons – City Creek; upper Red Butte; Parleys; Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood – are city watersheds and the source of more than 60% of the Salt Lake Valley’s drinking water.
Without access to federal land in popular canyons like Millcreek and Neffs, the dog hikers feel the few spots remaining — like a trail stemming from Tanner Park at the mouth of Parleys Canyon near southbound Interstate 215 — are at risk of becoming overrun by people with pups.
The dispute is just one of many that are bubbling across the Wasatch Front as the population of humans and their canines explodes. It’s tricky to pin down how many dogs are in the Wasatch— but one Salt Lake City survey from 2017 found that 38% of homes had dogs. A quick perusal of pet-sitting website Rover.com reveals more than a dozen available eager dog walkers in the city.
There is no shortage of opinion surrounding dogs in open spaces. Social media sites light up with long discussions about on-leash and off-leash dogs. Well-behaved dogs and troublemakers. About who picks up dog waste and who doesn’t. And about who leaves those gross plastic poop bags to litter trails and waterways, failing to come back for them.
Meanwhile community leaders, elected officials and advocates wrestle to figure out how to manage and share the outdoor spaces humans and dogs love.
The Forest Service prohibits any type of commercial activity without a permit. But that doesn’t mean businesses don’t operate on its land.
“We’re trying to always find that perfect balance of protecting these really important resources while offering diverse opportunities for recreation,” said Chelsea Phillippe, the park ranger supervisor for the Salt Lake Ranger District.
Five ski resorts — Alta, Brighton, Snowbasin, Snowbird and Solitude — all operate on Forest Service land along the Wasatch Front with special use permits.
“Anytime someone is running a business on public land, they need to obtain a special use permit,” said Phillippe, “And so currently, all these commercial dog walkers are technically breaking the law.”
Individuals with their own dogs are not at issue. They can walk their dogs in designated canyons so long as they are leashed. In Mill Creek Canyon dogs can be off-leash on odd-numbered days.
Phillippe said her agency has received complaints about commercial dog walking in Neffs, Mill Creek and Ferguson canyons. The three canyons provide ample shade during the summer months and people are allowed to walk their dogs there, but not for profit.
“We’ve definitely heard from the public, locals and some local governments about their concerns with the increase in commercial dog walkers,” Phillippe said.
The Forest Service is now posting signs informing trail users that commercial dog walking isn’t allowed. Rangers have begun leaving warning tickets on vehicle windshields and citing offenders.
“Some of the concerns are public safety, with one person trying to control so many dogs,” Phillippe said, “the increase in user conflicts, liability, and negative impacts from improperly disposed pet waste.”
John Knoblock, board chair for a recreational advocacy group, Trails Utah, shares those concerns.
“I think people should obey the law,” Knoblock said. He cites impacts to wildlife and the difficulty of controlling multiple dogs as a few of the reasons commercial dog walking shouldn’t be allowed on Forest Service land. He was also dubious about commercial dog walkers’ ability to pick up waste from so many canines.
“The more dogs,” Knoblock said, “the more opportunities there are for conflict.”
When asked about other commercial activity that takes place on Forest Service land, Knoblock said he sees a difference between allowing dog walking versus skiing, for instance.
“The ski resorts are providing a service to help people recreate,” Knoblock said. “Commercial dog walkers are doing business on the land that is an inhibitor to public recreating.”
What does the research show?
There have been a few studies showing that dogs in general — not specifically dogs with commercial walkers — are disruptive to wildlife.
“The most severe impact is that they can kill wildlife,” explained Julie Young, an associate professor in Utah State University’s Department of Wildland Resources. But “usually, it’s just more harassment and hazing.
“If that’s constant, or after a really hard period, then that could put [wildlife] over the edge into some sort of depletion,” Young said. If dogs and people are constantly scaring wildlife, the animals might flee an area. That can be a big problem in the winter, but also if that region provided critical habitat.
People, in general, are not great for wilderness. While nature may be a balm for the soul, it doesn’t seem to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
This summer, Christine Peterson wrote in High Country News that “a 2016 review of 274 articles on how outdoor recreation affects wildlife revealed that 59% of the interactions were negative.”
And in a 2019 article, Mountain Journal reported that one solo hiker could displace wildlife by 150 feet, while a recreator with a leashed dog resulted in wildlife moving 280 feet.
Young noted, “we’ve also seen from a lot of studies on urban wildlife they live, just like us, with a little higher stress level if they’re in a noisy and crowded environment.”
Some groups of conservation biologists calling for more human-free spaces, Young said, but enforcement of such a policy could be tricky.
“I think honestly, with how many people there are on the planet and how many of us live to recreate, the best practice is just to be mindful when you’re out there,” Young said. “There are wildlife that you’re sharing space with and you should do things to share space in a way that allows for coexistence for us both to use that space successfully.”
Young said that closing off critical winter habitat or highly visited places like national parks to dogs makes sense. But she also said that she, too, enjoyed hiking with her own dog in the wilderness, when allowed.
“I use dogs all the time for research where they can go out and detect scat, and they can detect species and they can do all these functions for us to actually help conserve wildlife, too,” Young said. “A lot of them are working for the conservation of wildlife.”
Dog walkers argue they are mindful
The commercial dog hikers say they organize trail clean-up days. They say they pick up and pack out more poop than the dogs they walk create, and that those who have been doing the work for decades always maintain control of the dogs in their care.
“It’s hard to understand what [critics’] main problem is when no one’s barking at them, no one’s jumping on them, no one’s charging at them,” said Nicole Sandor, owner of Mountain Mutts for the past 18 years. “We’re just kind of walking along, minding our business, enjoying being in the outdoors and exercising.”
Sandor loves making a difference in dogs’ lives and being outside. Plus, she can make a decent living doing the work.
In the winter, there are many alternative trails and open spaces that Sandor and other dog hikers take advantage of. But in the summer, when temperatures soar into the 90s and 100s, it’s trickier to find spots with enough shade and running water.
“Some people might think the dogs don’t really care as long as they’re out,” Sandor said, “but they know the difference.”
Sandor and other dog walkers are frustrated that commercial dog walkers can’t get permits to hike their charges legally. They said they didn’t want to break the law but in the hotter months some were tempted to seek higher ground. And that has meant on federally managed land.
“Who are these people getting these permits?” Sandor wondered aloud, “And why just them?”
Not everyone has the flexibility to take their own dog on a hike in the middle of the work day.
Gabriela Sessions is retired now, but her dog Maya has been hiking with Gregersen for the past eight years. “Out on the trails, she’s a happier dog, she’s a better dog, she’s with the pack,” Sessions said.
Sessions recently had a knee replacement and now Maya goes out hiking with Gregersen three times a week.
“Just knowing that I take very good care of my dog, that’s important for me,” Sessions said. “As a citizen, I should have the right to give my dog to somebody and have them hike her on my behalf.”
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