Mary Noyes and Norm Buttrick stop along a Baxter Woods trail in Portland with their dogs, Missy, a German shepherd and Gilly, a springer spaniel Thursday, July 18. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Dog owners are barking after the Parks and Recreation Commission on July 18 recommended limiting the time dogs are allowed to be off-leash in Baxter Woods.

Dogs are allowed to be off-leash in Portland’s Baxter Woods as long as they are within voice control and no more than 50 feet from their owner. A proposal heading to the council could change that. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

For at least 35 years, dogs have been allowed to run off-leash in the 29-acre preserve between Stevens and Forest avenues that former Gov. Percival Baxter deeded to the city more than 70 years ago.

But after the city received complaints from other park users, the commission by a 10-1 vote sent the City Council a recommendation to require dogs to be on a leash of no more than 8 feet between April 1 and July 31. Dogs would also have to be on leash from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Aug. 1 to March 31, but could remain leash-free under voice control during those months between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. and from 3-10 p.m.

The commission also recommended staff work with conservation, school and community groups to create a 5.5-acre habitat restoration area that would be off limits to off-leash dogs.

City officials see the proposal as a compromise that would allow dogs to be in the park off-leash while protecting the bird population and cutting down on complaints about dogs running loose in the park.

“What brought this forward was, for years, we have heard complaints from the public about dog use and some would say excessive off-leash dog use in Baxter Woods,” Ethan Hipple, deputy director of the Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department, said. “We have received written complaints from people who were either intimidated by a dog, injured by a dog or weren’t comfortable using the park because of off-leash dogs. We have heard from school groups at Lincoln and Longfellow who didn’t feel comfortable bringing students to the outdoor classroom there.”

Although Hipple said his department has received dozens of complaints, David Victor, who lives about 2 miles from the park, wants the dog restrictions to remain unchanged.

“I say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This is a wonderful place that during my time here has only gotten better, cleaner and safer,” Victor said, adding he’s been walking his dogs in the park for the last 17 years and has rarely seen any problems.

David Victor’s dog Louie looks back at another dog in Portland’s Baxter Woods during a walk last week. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Victor said being off leash allows dogs to release more energy and socialize with other dogs. He also said he has met many of his friends as a result of walking his dog in Baxter Woods.

“You wouldn’t believe the friendships and community that happens in this beautiful wooded setting and see how people commune with nature,” his wife, Barbara, said.

Dawn Leland, a Deering Center resident, said nearly all 400 people she and others surveyed over the last few months support keeping the park’s existing rules.

“I have people I go to walk our dogs with that I never would have met otherwise,” Leland said during an outing in the park July 18.

Mary Noyes said allowing her German shepherd Missy to run and explore the woods off-leash has been beneficial.

“These woods, this park has allowed her to be a more social German shepherd. She loves it here,” Noyes said.

Baxter deeded the woods to the city in 1946 with the stipulation that it remain undeveloped and be used as a park for recreational and educational purposes, and remain in its natural state to serve as a sanctuary for wild birds.

“Off-leash dogs are likely having a significant negative impact on ground-nesting and ground-feeding birds, as well as those associated shrubs and small trees. A related concern is that the high density of trails and foot traffic adds to wildlife disturbance whether or not dogs are leashed,” Robert Bryan, of Forest Synthesis wrote in Forest and Wildlife Habitat Management Plan in 2018 at the request of the city.

“We felt we weren’t being the best stewards of the land and the intent of when it was given to the city wasn’t being followed as closely as it could. We are just trying to rebalance the use of that park,” Hipple said.

According to ebird, a website that tracks bird sightings, 52 wild bird species have been found in the park since April. Hipple also said a survey is being conducted by Biodiversity Research Institute to formally chronicle all the bird species in Baxter Woods, and a final report is expected this fall.

“If we couple these restrictions and the habitat area, we could see up to a dozen ground-nesting birds in Baxter Woods,” he said.

Of the 813 acres of parks, playgrounds and open space in the city, Hipple said, 495 acres are available for dogs to run off-leash, including Evergreen Woods, Capisic Pond Park, University Park and Canco Woods, all within a mile or so from Baxter Woods.

He said he doesn’t know when the matter could be reviewed by the City Council.

“We are not in a huge rush. We want to make the change, but we want to do it right. We don’t want to push something through just to get it done,” Hipple said. “We feel we have a good compromise.”