As the winter season hits its stride, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails officials are reminding pet owners to keep their dogs on a leash as they use the local system.
More people are using trails — particularly the Rio Grande — for a variety of uses, including mountain biking, running, hiking and cross-country skiing. During peak winter season, the Rio Grande Trail averages about 50 daily users, said Gary Tennenbaum, stewardship and trails manager for the county. That number might seem pretty minimal compared to the summer, which draws about 150 users a day, but it is still a decent amount of people using a single path at the same time, he said.
The increase in traffic on the Rio Grande Trail has spurred at least one incident where a dog owner was issued a citation on New Year’s Day.
John Armstrong, an open space ranger, issued a young local woman a citation after her off-leash dog jumped on a cross-country skier, who also was using the trail at the time.
The incident was the second encounter between the two parties on the Rio Grande, Armstrong said. The first incident happened a few weeks earlier when the off-leash dog softly bit the woman, who was walking the same section of the trail at the time. The victim reported the incident, but declined to file a complaint, which would have led to a citation, according to Armstrong. Armstrong instead gave the dog owner a warning.
The county’s open space rangers can issue a warning and then a $100 fine to dog owners who have their pets off leash on the first offense, $500 on the second and $1,000 on the third. The owners either have to pay the fine within 10 days or appear in court to contest the citation, which is usually scheduled about seven weeks after the incident, Armstrong said.
The dog owner from this week’s incident will likely end up in court because she told Armstrong she didn’t have the money to pay the fine, he said.
The situation is unfortunate because the dog involved appears to be an “overly friendly” puppy that isn’t trained, Armstrong said. Still, each person using the trail system has a right not to be harassed by a dog, he said.
“One strong point of open space and trails is that we strongly believe that people have a right to their personal space on the trail system,” Armstrong said.
Each year, the county issues about 36 tickets to pet owners who are violating the leash rule, Armstrong said. They’re issued fairly rarely, he added.
Another reason to keep pets on a leash is that it is the beginning of mountain lion season in the area. Mountain lions, also known as cougars, come down from the high country during the winter months as they follow elk and deer herds, which serve as their food source.
Homeowners at W/J Ranch, located off of McLain Flats Road, have reportedly seen mountain lion tracks in the snow recently, Armstrong said.
Although there have never been mountain lion attacks reported in Aspen, cougars could potentially get a hold of an off-leash pet, he said.
Mountain lions are typically the most active at dawn and dusk and if one attacks, try to appear big but don’t threaten the animal, Armstrong advised.
“Don’t run,” Armstrong said. “Don’t turn your back on a cougar because if you’re running you look like prey.”
Obviously, however, if a cougar attacks, fight for your life, Armstrong added.