When my husband, Brian, and I get a chance to watch the sun set over the Pacific, his go-to line is, “Wouldn’t it be cool to peel off the top layer of the ocean just for a minute and see all that’s going on out there?”
As scuba divers, we’ve swum near sharks and sealions, made the acquaintance of eels and groupers, marveled at brilliant schools of fish circling above us, their scales glimmering in the sunlit water. Each of these are snippets, a scene here and there, a glimpse of the vastness that is the ocean.
Imagine seeing the full array at one time: a pod of dolphin playing near the surface not yet aware of a nearing shark, while a sealion hunts for fish off a kelp paddy, and way, way down at the sea bottom a halibut loses its sandy cover to move from one reef to another.
Our coastal sage scrub wilderness could be thought of in the same way. We hike and ride miles of trails every day unaware that we missed a snake by a foot or two, passed by a nesting woodrat, or was carefully eyed by a nearby coyote camouflaged through sycamore trees and black sage.
In both cases – land and sea – we, as humans are the intruders or perhaps, better yet the “guests” if we treat our visit with respect.
So, it was equally intriguing and alarming when recently, two independent and unique occurrences happened in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park on the very same morning within 90 minutes and one mile of each other and I was aware of both:
- Volunteers on the Discovery Hike “discovered” a bobcat and respectfully watched and photographed the animal as it sauntered away; they texted me pictures;
- A short time before receiving their text, I witnessed a dog owner walk his dog into the wilderness park on a trail nearby the volunteers that was marked “No Dogs”
As with the ocean observation, the “top was peeled off” the habitat and it wasn’t just one scene brought to my attention, it was two scenes, juxtaposed in time and space.
What might the consequences be?
Bobcat, along with many other species such as mule deer, coyote, gray fox and woodrats, are native to our wilderness parks. Each rely on a delicate balance of the ecosystem to survive.
A 2006 research study, Effects of Dogs on Wildlife Communities  reported that, “The presence of dogs along recreational trails correlated with altered patterns of habitat utilization by several wildlife species.
“Mule deer activity was significantly lower in proximity to trail in areas that allowed dogs …” as well as – not surprising – many small mammals including squirrel, rabbits and mice, i.e. bobcat’s prey.
The study further reported “… the presence of dogs also affected carnivore activity.” In areas that allowed dogs, “… bobcat detections were lower.”
Not only does the presence of dogs – indirect or direct – affect the food of the bobcat (squirrel, rabbits and mice), it causes the bobcat to avoid certain territories. Considering that the South Coast Wilderness is a “land island” virtually unreachable from the neighboring mountains, further fragmentation and territory reduction can be severely detrimental to the bobcat and native fauna, in general.
From the perspective of protecting and preserving the wilderness, there are very good reasons why OC Parks rangers do not allow dogs on most trails.
What about from a dog’s perspective? Let’s “peel off the top” and look at what is out there for him: he may step off trail and stick his nose into vegetation where there are snakes, poison oak, and/or ticks carrying Lyme disease. Often, too, undetected by the owner until too late, dogs succumb to heat exhaustion out on the trails, far from transportation and help.
To minimize these effects both on the wilderness and risks for dogs, Aliso and Wood Canyon Wilderness Park Rangers limit where dogs are permitted to five outlying trails, which cause a lesser impact on the native flora and fauna and are more accessible in case of emergency. Those trails are: Valido, Aliso Summit, Aswut, West Ridge, and Canyon Acres. There are no dog friendly trails in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.
The Rangers also regulate human activity in the parks by requiring that we stay on authorized trails, limiting parking at trailheads from to 7:00am (or 8:00am) – 5:00pm, and by closing the parks between sunset and sunrise. These efforts provide a needed respite where, thankfully under the cloak of darkness and with nothing to “peel off,” the animals are rarely seen.
 The Effects of Dogs on Wildlife Communities, February 2006; Benjamin Lenth, Mark Brennan, Richard L. Knight; Colorado State University
Photos by John Foley, Laguna Canyon Foundation’s Wildlife Camera Team, and Mary Hurlbut