Gracie is ravenously chewing a bone as we talk in the Glacier National Park headquarters. Her behavior may seem wildly inappropriate for a park employee who has been featured in the Washington Post and National Public Radio and has 14,900 followers on Instagram. But Gracie enjoys a special status.
She’s a dog. A border collie, to be precise.
She spends a lot of her time on leash in Glacier National Park, patrolling Logan Pass, which is the highest point at 6,646 feet on Going-to-the-Sun Road and a magnet for wildlife like bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Accompanied by her owner, Mark Biel, who serves as the park’s natural resources program manager, Gracie is trained to move bighorn sheep and mountain goats out of the parking lot and away from people on Logan Pass.
But she also plays another vital role. She attracts visitors to Biel, which gives him an opportunity to educate them about wildlife safety.
“Since I got Gracie, I'll hear people scream, ‘Is that Gracie?' and they'll come running over,” says Biel who has worked at five national parks before Glacier. “She helps facilitate interactions with people.”
Before Gracie, park rangers spent years using typical hazing techniques to move bighorn sheep and mountain goats out of the parking lot. They waved their arms, used sirens and shook cans of rocks. But those tactics only worked for short periods of time before the animals returned.
And places like Logan Pass in Glacier are getting more congested, increasing the likelihood of human-wildlife interactions. Like most national parks, Glacier has seen an exponential explosion of visitors. In 2017 alone, more than 3.3 million people visited Glacier, a 25 percent increase over 2016. It was the busiest year on record for the park.
With crowds flocking to Logan Pass, it seemed only a matter of time until a human-wildlife interaction turned dangerous. Biel had an idea. With permission from his supervisors, he applied for a grant from the Glacier National Park Conservancy to get wildlife shepherding training for him and his young border collie.
The conservancy’s funding committee admittedly had worries. What if the dog bit someone or got hit by a car?
“But ultimately, Mark was saying, ‘This is a huge problem at Logan Pass, and if we don’t use this method, we’ll have to do something else,’ ” says Amy Dempster, marketing director for Glacier National Park Conservancy. “We figured this would be a proactive step rather than reactive.”
Gracie isn’t the first domesticated animal to manage wild animals at national parks. During the 1990s, Glacier rangers contracted with Wind River Bear Institute to have trainers and their Karelian dogs successfully manage habituated roadside bears in the Many Glacier area. North of Glacier and over the Canadian border, Waterton Lakes National Park rangers contract with a service to use dogs to move habituated deer out of the Waterton townsite before they give birth. It has reduced the number of dangerous encounters between people and deer protecting their fawns.
Going into her fourth season in 2019, Gracie’s successes have become a model for managing wildlife and educating people on the dangers of approaching and feeding wildlife.
“We realize it's one of the few places where you can still see bighorn sheep,” Biel says, referring to the park. “People can still see wildlife, take photos and stay a safe distance from wildlife.”
Follow Gracie on Instagram at barkrangernps.