Off-leash dogs to be banned at Gonzales Beach after city gets 'marching orders'

Victoria councillors are moving forward with a bylaw change that will prohibit off-leash dogs on Gonzales Beach in order to align with federal regulations that supersede the city’s rules.

In June, the Canadian Wildlife Service, a branch of Environment and Climate Change Canada, told city council 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.

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The wildlife service said it had received numerous complaints from the public about altercations between off-leash dogs and migratory birds in Greater Victoria, and pointed to the city bylaw as creating confusion for residents.

Councillors voted unanimously Thursday to move ahead with bylaw changes that would bring the city rules in line with the federal regulations. The earliest date for an amended bylaw to take effect is Oct. 7.

Councillors Charlayne Thornton-Joe and Stephen Andrew expressed concern about moving too quickly without giving the public enough time to weigh in.

City solicitor Tom Zworski noted the city bylaw cannot override the existing federal regulation and the current bylaw could lead someone to “unwittingly violate the federal rules.”

Mayor Lisa Helps called the request for a bylaw change from the federal government ­“essentially our marching orders” to protect birds and biodiversity.

“The reality is there are federal regulations and our bylaw is in conflict, so we have to change our bylaw to come into compliance with federal regulations,” she said. “So there’s nothing for the public to say, except they don’t like that.”

Zworski said there’s no obligation for the city to enforce its bylaw. Federal representatives intend to enforce their own regulations, he said. The regulations around the migratory bird sanctuary are not new, despite many residents being unaware of the ban on unleashed dogs on Gonzales Beach.

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.

A spokesperson for the federal department said in an email that dogs pose a risk for migratory birds that can lead to displacement, reduced foraging rates, nest abandonment, increased alert behaviours and higher mortality.

“Many of the bird species that use the shorelines of the city of Victoria are experiencing steep declines. Therefore, an important way folks can help contribute to the conservation of these species is by keeping their dogs on leash.”

The sanctuary includes all intertidal areas below the high tide line from Cadboro Bay in Saanich to Macaulay Point in Esquimalt. Victoria staff say other coastal off-leash areas are adjacent to the sanctuary boundary, and Gonzales Beach is the only off-leash area in the city within its bounds.

Environment and Climate Change Canada did not answer a question about whether there are other areas in the region where local bylaws conflict with the federal regulations governing the sanctuary.

There will be 15 off-leash areas for dogs in the city when Gonzales Beach is removed from the list. The closest off-leash areas to Gonzales Beach are Pemberton Park, Clover Point Park, Beacon Hill Park south of Dallas Road and Redfern Park.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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