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Why dog poop is bad for rivers, community health


Evidence of Big Sky’s dog poop problem resurfaces every spring, threatening both the environment and community health.

“There are two factors in Big Sky that are a bit unique that I would guess add to the risk,” said Bill Elledge, the Big Sky Community Organization trail steward. “I think our community has a higher proportion of dog owners than most, and especially large dogs, and I imagine that the long winter and colder temps with a normally fairly rapid spring thaw melt the ‘poopsicles’ pretty quickly and put a large load of phosphorus and nitrogen, along with coliforms and other pathogens, into the runoff and groundwater in a relatively brief period of time.”

To address the problem, Elledge and 19 other volunteers picked up 100 pounds of poop in less than two hours earlier this spring. That’s enough crap to divert 21 pounds of nitrogen, 24 pounds of phosphorus, and one trillion colony-forming units of fecal coliform from local streams.

Everybody poops, so what’s the big deal?

When bear, elk and other wildlife defecate, they return nutrients to the soil while spreading thousands of seeds. Dogs, on the other hand, eat nutrient-rich foods produced in factories. When excreted, dog waste unbalances the natural system by adding high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous to streams in the Big Sky area that already exceed state standards for nutrient pollution.

Dog feces are also crawling with bacteria. The “Los Angeles Times” reported that dogs produce about ten times more fecal coliform per pound than cows. What’s more, dog waste carries 65 diseases that can be transmitted to humans, including whipworms, bookworms, parvo, coronavirus, Giardia, Salmonella, Cryptosporidium and Campylobacter. In fact, DNA tests conducted in Seattle identified a canine source for over 20 percent of the bacteria found in local waterways.

So, what’s the solution to the pet ‘poo-pocalypse’?

It’s no secret that picking up after your dog is the best way to prevent pet-waste pollution. Leave No Trace suggests that responsible dog owners should, “both immediately pick up all of the waste, and immediately take the bag(s) of waste away from the area for proper disposal in a trash or compost bin.” In addition, Leave No Trace says dog owners should bury dog doo, along with human waste, when recreating in the backcountry.

Humans, however, aren’t picking up after their pets when nature calls. A study conducted in Boulder, Colorado, found that only 73.5 percent of dog owners collect all pet droppings. The researchers found that infrastructure, such as conveniently-placed plastic bags and trash receptacles, could boost scooping rates to over 90 percent when coupled with community education.

Is it really better for the environment to send dog waste to a landfill?

Plastic pollution is a serious environmental problem; however, when dogs live in high density alongside their humans, their waste must be appropriately treated and disposed of in order to protect water quality, soil sanitation and community health. Just two- to three-days-worth of droppings from a population of about 100 dogs contain enough bacteria to temporarily close a bay and all waterways within 20 miles to swimming and shellfishing, as estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“I have to confess that my original concern about doggy poop had more to do with the ‘yuk’ factor than with the environmental and scientific issues,” Elledge said. “I think most people would agree that dog waste is gross, especially if you happen to bring it home or to your car on the bottom of your shoe. But I’m now more convinced that the important issue is what it does to our watershed.”

Next time your pup drops a steaming turd, please pick it up to keep our parks, trails and rivers clean.

Stephanie Lynn is the education and communications coordinator for the Gallatin River Task Force.

Joseph T. O'Connor is the previous Editor-in-Chief for EBS newspaper and Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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