CHICAGO — A nasty war between birders and dog owners at Montrose Beach — a fight that's even included pepper-spraying and rocks to the head — could be headed toward a peaceful solution.
For years, the two groups have battled over sandy ground at the beach, which is ranked as Illinois' best place for birding. It has a protected bird habitat but also a fenced-off area for dogs and their owners.
Members of Chicago Ornithological Society and MonDog — the Dog Friendly Area volunteer group that acts as stewards for Montrose Dog Beach — met with Chicago Park District and other officials in January, and the groups plan to convene again April 3.
"We believe that by having our groups work together, Montrose Park will remain one of the best places in America to take one's dog and to watch migratory birds for decades to come," said Paul Fehrenbacher, a board member of MonDog and co-founder of Mutt Jackson, a self-service dog wash at Montrose Dog Beach.
Montrose Dog Beach, which was created in 2003, is just north of a protected habitat that is Chicago's most diverse bird area with more than 300 species recorded. The dogs are allowed off leash inside the dog beach and within an old boat launch leading up to it. They are also allowed on leash everywhere else within Montrose Park except for the swimming beach and natural areas.
But the rules are routinely ignored by a small group of dog owners despite fines ranging from $300 to $500.
"Most of the dog people are good people. It's just a few that don't give a s---," said Luis Munoz, former president of Chicago Ornithological Society and also a member of Birders for a Better Montrose.
Munoz and other members of Birders for a Better Montrose frequently post photos of dog owners breaking the rules by allowing their pooches to enter the protected bird area. Munoz said one dog can scare away countless birds, including rare ones like snowy owls.
In the past, birders and dog owners have clashed over the land. Munoz, a retired Chicago Police homicide detective, described an altercation in September in which he said he was forced to pepper-spray an off-leash dog that he said was in the protected bird area and was trying to attack him. The dog owner, he said, took exception and then hit Munoz in the head with a rock.
Chicago Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner said the Park District has met with birder groups, Animal Care and Control, Illinois Conservation Police and Town Hall District Police about protection of the bird sanctuary. The Police Department and the Illinois Conservation Police will serve as law enforcement near the sanctuary, while Animal Care and Control enforces the laws related to unleashed dogs.
"Each group has committed to doing its part in protecting the bird sanctuary," Maxey-Faulkner said.
Fehrenbacher, of North Center, said MonDog recently installed signs that implore dog owners to keep their pets within the dog beach area. He said the group also routinely posts messages on social media telling where dog owners can and can't go at the beach.
"Montrose Dog Beach has thousands of people that go there, so it’s by far the minority of people who break the rules," Fehrenbacher said.
Fehrenbacher said "time and history" have led the birders and dog owners to the resolution "that we need to work together."
Munoz, of Uptown, hopes the conflicts are in the past and that the birds can be left alone.
"Montrose is very important for bird migration," he said. "You shouldn't deter birds from using the [protected] beach because that's what it's there for."