Barbie Whitten of Portland walks with her dog Perry in Baxter Woods Jan. 15. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
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A conflict over dogs in Mayor Baxter Woods has flared up again, as a City Council committee considers a proposal to limit the time canines may be off leash in the 32-acre park.

Some users are intimidated by the presence of rambunctious, unleashed dogs in the public forest and bird sanctuary, where off-leash dogs are now allowed at all times. Also, data show the property at 850 Forest Ave., which was deeded to the city in 1946 by the late Gov. Percival Baxter, has fewer birds than in nearby forested areas.

The Sustainability and Transportation Committee is considering a proposal from the Parks, Recreation and Facilities department that would require dogs in the park to be on leash through the migratory bird nesting season, from April through July, and between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. the rest of the year. A five-acre habitat restoration area would require dogs be leashed at all times.

Ethan Hipple, deputy director of the Parks Department, told the committee Jan. 15 that the city receives many complaints, the most common from dog owners who say they cannot bring their dogs to the woods because of the behavior of other, aggressive dogs. 

“We hear of dog attacks,” Hipple said. “Last week, someone had his coat torn by a dog who ran up to him.”

He said families with young children avoid the park because of the dogs, and school groups use it less than they would otherwise. He has also heard from school officials that unleashed dogs are particularly intimidating to immigrant children.  

The current proposal is a compromise to dog owners who opposed an earlier version that would have prohibited dogs from ever being off leash in the park. It is an attempt to balance the needs of different user groups, and honor the wishes of the former governor that it “forever be kept in its natural wild state and as a bird sanctuary for wild birds.”

But Friends of Mayor Baxter Woods, formerly Responsible Dog Owners of Baxter Woods, still oppose the measure. Anne Callender told the committee that Percival Baxter was a dog lover who would have wanted dogs to run free in the woods, and that the 1946 definition of a bird sanctuary, as a place birds are protected from hunting, was different than it is now.

She argued the data is not conclusive that dogs have an impact on the bird population in the park and she suggested other causes – cats, or nearby construction – could be to blame. Also missing from the city’s data, she said, is information about the uses of the park. 

“The Parks Department has pulled together essential data on forestry management and bird counts, but what is missing is a comprehensive study of who is using the woods and why,” she said. “Without this data, the committee and council cannot make an informed decision.”

She said three members of Friends of Mayor Baxter Woods conducted a survey of 400 random park users, 98 percent of whom wanted the park to remain leash free. She requested that the vote be delayed until more data is collected. 

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau suggested the city conduct a similar survey, but one that would also capture the opinions of those who may not be using the park. But Councilor Jill Duson said doing so would imply management of the park is a matter of popular vote. 

“I don’t want to go further down the trail of believing that it really matters the opinion of the people who use or don’t use the park,” Duson said. “Our duty as trustees is to follow the deed. It’s not a popularity contest.” 

Duson said the compromise proposal does not fulfill the conditions of the deed, which also stipulated the land shall be held in trust by the city “for the benefit of the people of Portland … for public recreational and educational purposes.”

She suggested that if passed, the rule change should be accompanied by a review process to determine if efforts at bird restoration are working and complaints are declining.

Hipple spoke optimistically about involving the Friends of Mayor Baxter Woods in an education campaign about the bird habitat restoration program, and Duson suggested involving the group in data gathering as well as in self-compliance and self-monitoring.

But Friends members gathered in the City Hall lobby after the committee meeting were less than keen about being “used” to enforce a rule they oppose.

“We’re still fighting this ordinance proposal,” Mark Lesperance said. “We’re not giving in.”

He said group members are as appalled by bad dog behavior as anyone else, and report dog attacks to the police. He also noted there are laws in place to deal with those problems.

Michelle Lesperance said that the Friends group has been shut out of the problem-solving process, and that there are other solutions to consider. She suggested the city could set up off-leash licenses for dogs that go through a training program. 

Callender suggested the organization could let dog owners know when school groups would be using the woods, rather than banning off-leash dogs during all times schools are in session. It could also identify dog problems and organize trainings with volunteers. 

“We find ourselves in the woods helping each other train our dogs and socialize our dogs and making them better citizens,” Callender said. “That’s what brings us joy.” 

The committee plans to hold a public hearing, discussion and vote on the proposal Feb. 3.

City collects baseline data

Approval of plans for a large condominium development on a property abutting Baxter Woods, which could markedly increase use of the park by new residents and their pets, prompted the city to look into how the park was being managed. To collect baseline data, it had an ecological assessment and forest management plan done in 2018, and a bird survey conducted by the Biodiversity Research Institute in November 2019. 

The bird survey found that birds common in nearby forest patches – veery, hermit thrush, ovenbird, and song sparrow – were “notably lacking” in Baxter Woods, and recorded a “striking” absence of ground or near-ground nesting birds species. 

The bird survey attributed the absence of ground nesting birds to the lack of understory vegetation, mixed recreational use of the park, and the impacts of dogs on bird nesting. It notes that the woods probably also hosts predators including raccoons, foxes, feral cats, and squirrels. 

The authors recommended management changes, such as clearly defined trails and requiring dogs to be on leash, and warned that any habitat enhancements without such changes could lead to birds attempting to nest there, but failing because of disturbance.

Eric Topper of Maine Audubon pointed to an Australian study on the effects of dogs walked with leashes on several bird species. It found a 41 percent reduction in the numbers of birds detected and a 35 percent reduction in diversity, with ground-dwelling birds most affected: 50 percent of the species recorded in control sites were absent from dog-walked sites. The authors also found 76 percent fewer birds within 10 meters of a trail when dog-walking occurred. 

“Even dogs restrained on leads can disturb birds sufficiently to induce displacement and cause a depauperate local bird fauna,” the study concluded. “Our results support the long-term prohibition of dog walking from sensitive conservation areas.”

Baxter silent on the issue

Percival Baxter’s love of dogs is well documented. He wrote a book “My Irish Setter Dogs,” when he was governor, and had the flags at the State House lowered when his dog Garry II died. And he made sure dogs were depicted in the Sailors and Soldiers Memorial in Kittery. 

At its dedication on Armistice Day in 1924, he said, “The dog is man’s most faithful, affectionate and loyal friend: I insisted that he be recognized.”

But there is no language in Baxter’s deed that indicates whether dogs should be permitted to run off leash on the Portland property. The Friends of Baxter Woods believe it did not have to be stated because there were no leash laws at the time. 

Pets are prohibited in Baxter State Park, the wilderness area in Millinocket that Baxter also gave to the public. 

Eben Sypitkowski, director of Baxter State Park, said the prohibition is not stipulated in the deed but was a decision made by the Baxter State Park Authority in the early 1960s. Though Baxter was alive at the time and was involved in decision making at the park until his death in 1969, there is no record that Baxter supported or opposed the measure. 

“Unfortunately we can’t find anything to suggest that Baxter himself actually weighed in,” Sypitkowski said. 

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