The annual return of a pair of adult sandhill cranes to Story Mill Community Park is a harbinger of spring.

Within the park’s nature sanctuary the cranes will mate, nest and rear young even as Montana spring oscillates between snow and sun. Together, these elegant birds weave a sturdy nest, taking turns to shelter the eggs while the other forages. Once the baby colts emerge, with parental guidance these delayed flyers walk up to two miles a day across fields and wetlands. The giant wingspan and prehistoric rattle of the crane are an ageless reminder of how long these magnificent birds have come to grace our valley.

Earlier this winter, Story Mill Community Park’s nature sanctuary was opened for public enjoyment while construction is being completed across the rest of the park. Trails within the nature sanctuary have been carefully placed to allow visitors to enjoy bird-watching and connect with nature with minimal disruption to the birds and wildlife. The area is an urban wildlife oasis. Sacajawea Audubon has counted over 125 bird species here, and, on any given day in spring, ground-nesting birds busily tend over 100 eggs. A lot of work has been done to restore the wetlands and replace the “drain-and-ditch” topography from past agricultural use, while the East Gallatin and Bozeman Creek have been reconnected to historic floodplains.

Taking into account this wealth of birds, wildlife and water resources, the topic of dog visitors at Story Mill Community Park was given thoughtful consideration. Bozeman is a dog-lovers town (to say the least), and finding a balance within shared community spaces is important to dog-owners and non-dog owners, alike. In fact, minimizing conflicts between dogs and wildlife was a top concern raised time and again by community members during park design workshops.

Numerous research studies have documented the correlation in sensitive areas between the presence of dogs, on and off leash, and reductions in birds and wildlife. In other words, dogs – whether intentionally or not — scare away wildlife.

Yet for many of us, daily outings with our pups foster good health, increased happiness and quality of life. The Trust for Public Land, Sacajawea Audubon, West Paw, Run Dog Run, and Gallatin Valley Land Trust have joined the city of Bozeman Parks Department to support a “dog friendly-wildlife safe” plan for Story Mill Community Park.

Dogs are welcome in over half of the 60-acre Story Mill Community Park. They must be kept on-leash throughout the play and gathering spaces, pathways and lawns. And, thanks to a partnership with West Paw, there is a fenced, off-leash dog park where dogs can play fetch, socialize and run freely. However, within the park’s nature sanctuary, dogs will not be allowed, so that area wildlife are able to thrive. Nature sanctuary entrances are being carefully signed to avoid confusion and re-direct owners with their dogs.

We commend the City Parks Department for listening to community concerns and adopting this common sense management plan to ensure a balanced, happy and safe experience for people, dogs, and wildlife at Story Mill Community Park. If you are out walking the Story Mill Spur Trail this spring, please plan your visit to enjoy the nature sanctuary unaccompanied by your four-legged friend. If you do have “Bridger” in tow, continue on down the trail to check out the new West Paw Dog Park. You may meet West Paw volunteers along the trail – they are there to provide directions and information about the dog-friendly areas. And, please mark your calendars for the official park opening celebration planned for Saturday, July 20!

Maddy Pope is project manager with The Trust for Public Land; Spencer Williams is chief executive officer and president of West Paw; and Terry Cunningham is executive director of Run Dog Run.