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Off-leash dogs could be banned at Gonzales Beach in Victoria

A proposed bylaw change aimed at protecting birds would prevent dogs from being off leash on Gonzales Beach, where they’ve typically been allowed to be leash-free from Sept. 1 to the end of May.
Lisa Ilynytzky with her dog Bree on Gonzales Beach. Dogs may no longer have a leash-free run of the beach from Sept. 1 to May 31 under a proposed bylaw that aims to protect birds. Dogs are banned from the beach in June, July and August. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A proposed bylaw change aimed at protecting birds would prevent dogs from being off leash on Gonzales Beach, where they’ve typically been allowed to be leash-free from Sept. 1 to the end of May.

In June, the Canadian Wildlife Service — a branch of Environment and Climate Change Canada — told the city the beach falls within the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary and is subject to federal regulations that prohibit pet owners from allowing dogs and cats to run free.

Although the federal regulations override a city bylaw allowing off-leash use, the Wildlife Service said the inconsistency creates confusion, and it asked the city to bring its bylaw in line with the regulations.

The Wildlife Service said in a letter to city council that it has received numerous complaints from the public about altercations between off-leash dogs and migratory birds in Greater Victoria.

In a report going to councillors Thursday, city staff recommend removing Gonzales Beach from a list of off-leash dog areas in the city. While unleashed dogs are currently allowed on the beach from Sept. 1 to May 31, dogs are banned completely during June, July and August.

Brigit Mitchell lives just a couple of blocks from the beach and takes her eight-month-old Australian mini labradoodle, Henry, to Gonzales every day. “He loves the water and he loves to run and play with dogs. It’s a nice place to come,” she said. Taking him there on leash wouldn’t give him the same opportunity to burn off energy, she said.

During the summer, when dogs aren’t allowed on the beach, she often walks Henry in Pemberton Park, an off-leash area about a kilometre from Gonzales Beach. But in the fall, a creek running through the park soaks the grass in the dog area, turning it into a bit of a marsh, she said.

Losing Gonzales Beach as an off-leash area would mean a huge change, Mitchell said. She said she would probably end up driving to Dallas Road instead of walking a couple of minutes to a much quieter area at Gonzales Beach.

Lisa Ilynytzky, who takes her two-year-old bichon shih tzu, Bree, to Gonzales about once a week, said it’s Bree’s “happy place.”

“This makes me sad, because this is the only place where she can really run and I don’t have to worry she’s going to go into traffic,” she said.

At Pemberton and along Dallas Road, she worries about Bree running into the road. Gonzales Beach is well-contained and away from the road, separated by a long staircase and grassy area.

Both women mark Sept. 1 on their calendars in anticipation of the first day they’re allowed to return to the beach with their dogs.

Similarly, dog owners flock to the beach on May 31, Ilynytzky said. “It is packed, because everybody wants the last day [before dogs are banned].”

The Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary was established in 1923 and spans 1,841 hectares on the shores of Victoria, Oak Bay, Esquimalt, Saanich and View Royal.

The sanctuary is home to several species at risk, such as marbled murrelets, peregrine falcons and Pacific great blue herons, and is an important roosting and overwintering site for many migratory bird species, Environment and Climate Change Canada says on its website.

City staff say while there are other coastal areas adjacent to the sanctuary, Gonzales Beach is the only area in Victoria where land extends into the sanctuary.

If changes to the city bylaw are approved, staff plan to work with the Canadian Wildlife Service on signs to provide guidance to the public about the impact off-leash dogs can have on the habitat and species at risk. The federal agency is studying the impacts of dogs on migratory birds in sanctuaries in Victoria Harbour, Shoal Harbour and Esquimalt Lagoon and intends to publish its results next year.