Panorama of the San Marcos Foothills Preserve
Keeping your Dogs and Wildlife
Safe on the San Marcos Foothills

Dog walking is a popular activity at the San Marcos Foothills, but many pet owners do not understand why there is an ordinance requiring that pets be on a leash (Ord. No. 3708, § 1; Ord. No. 4508, § 1).  Many people feel that their particular pet is well behaved and that the ordinance is arbitrary.  But leash laws in a nature preserve are NOT arbitrary.  Here’s why:

Dangers to wildlife:

As many as 43 rare or threatened species may be found on the San Marcos Foothills.  These include nesting birds and other animals that are vulnerable to disturbance by pets.   Birds can abandon their nests if disturbed by people or pets that wander off the trails.  Nesting animals often hide in shrubs or grassy areas very near trail edges.  A curious dog can easily find and disturb these animals, and the encounter may result in a missed opportunity for that animal to breed.   This happens more often than most of us know, and the consequences are measurable: the number of birds (particularly grassland species) are in steep decline in many areas, including at the San Marcos Foothills.

Channel Islands Restoration and our partners are working hard to reverse the decline in populations of birds and other animals by restoring habitat at the San Marcos Foothills. This work is made more difficult when recreational activities disturb the wildlife that struggles to survive there.  The San Marcos Foothills was donated to the County for preservation purposes. Considering that there are many local parks that allow off-leash recreation for your dog, is it not reasonable to keep your pet on a leash in a wildlife preserve?  Please keep your dog on a leash to help ensure that vulnerable wildlife can survive and thrive at the San Marcos Foothills Preserve.

Dangers to your dog:

One of the challenges of walking your dog in a nature preserve includes encountering poisonous and/or aggressive wildlife.  The San Marcos Foothills has a thriving rattlesnake population, and the area provides hunting grounds for coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions and even bears.  There are a few simple ways that you can protect your pet while enjoying a walk on the Preserve.

Although rattlesnakes are not aggressive and try to avoid encounters with people and their dogs, these encounters are not always avoidable.  Rattlesnakes often seek out locations along trails. A recent article on rattlesnakes on (a sports and fitness site) pointed out that:

“A favorite location that snakes enjoy is the shade of a bush located next to a sunny trail. The snake can move itself in and out of the shade to regulate body temperature. Unfortunately, this location is also prime sniffing territory for dogs accompanying their human companions.”

If given enough warning, adult rattlesnakes will often rattle to warn off predators, but they will often strike without warning if surprised by a dog or person.  Also, a rattle on a juvenile snake may be too small or a rattle on a larger snake may be too badly damaged to be clearly audible.

Rattlesnakes are a clear danger to your dog.  The Animal Medical Center of Southern California says the following about dogs and snakebite:

“Dogs are about 20 times more likely to be bitten by venomous snakes than people and are about 25 times more likely to die if bitten. Snake bites are life threatening, extremely painful, expensive to treat, and can cause permanent damage even when the dogs survive. Dogs can encounter a rattlesnake anytime they are in rattlesnake habitat. You and your dog may live in rattlesnake habitat, or perhaps you travel through or frequently visit places where rattlesnakes are found. Maybe rattlesnakes are around when you take your dog hiking, camping or hunting. Like people, dogs may stumble over the location of a snake by accident. Curiosity or a protective instinct can place your dog at risk.”

Although there is a vaccine that helps lessen the severity of snake bite in dogs, “the vaccine does not insure protection against the venom" according to UC Davis Veterinary Medicine.   Perhaps the best advice for preventing snake bite in your dog comes from “If you hear a rattle or see a snake on the ground ahead of you, if your dog is on a 6 foot leash, you can avoid it.  Vets say the vast majority of rattlesnake bites occur when a dog is off-leash or on a flexi-lead.”  Or take this advice from PETMD on keeping your dog safe from snake bite: “While out walking, controlling your dog with a leash may be your best safety device.”  Keep in mind that medical attention for you or your dog may be delayed at the Preserve depending on where snakebite occurs.

Coyotes are a common site at the San Marcos Foothills, and they are one of the top-level predators on the Preserve. Coyotes are not normally aggressive to people, but reports of coyote attacks on pets and the "mobbing" of dog-walkers on trails are on the rise in our area. Recently a large dog that was walking off-leash ahead of its owners was attacked by several coyotes on the Preserve. The dog-owners were able to drive the coyotes off, but the dog as badly injured and had to be carried out for medical attention.   We are also aware of a person who's dog was killed by a coyote attack in Parma Park. This beloved pet was not on a leash and surprised a group of coyotes on a trail. These kinds of attacks can be a particular problem during the mating and pupping season (January through May or August) and when dogs are allowed to run off-leash.  As urban areas expand into coyote habitat and humans spend their recreational time in areas where coyotes hunt, the chances increase that pets and coyotes are going to come into contact.

There are a few tips that people visiting the Preserve should keep in mind that will help keep themselves and their dogs safe:

  • Keep pets on a short leash.
  • Carry a whistle or large stick when walking on the Preserve.
  • Don't run if you see a coyote.
  • Make yourself appear large.
  • Yell, shout, or throw things (not food) toward the coyote.
  • Call 911 if needed.
Set an example!

The number one excuse given by people ignoring the rules against riding bikes on the Preserve is that many people are not following the LEASH laws. If dog owners ignore the law, then why should bikers care about breaking the law? Ironically, bike riders tell us that they are scolded by hikers on the Preserve who are accompanying unleashed dogs. Why not set a positive example for everyone, including other dog owners and those who would illegally ride their bikes on the Preserve by keeping your dog on a leash? With this simple act you can show that you respect the wildlife on the Preserve, plus the safety of hikers and their pets.


Off-Leash alternatives:
If off-leash dog walking is important to you, please considering doing it in parks which offer off-leash options.  These parks are far better choices for this type of recreation compared to the San Marcos Foothills, which is a nature preserve.  There are six parks in the South County that offer off-leash options:

Arroyo Burro Beach Park, Santa Barbara
Douglas Family Preserve, Santa Barbara
Elings Park, Santa Barbara
Tucker's Grove Park, Goleta
Sea Lookout Park, Isla Vista
Tabano Hollow Neighborhood Open Space, Goleta