Glacier National Park may be known for its bighorn sheep, alpine meadows and otherwise spectacular scenery, but we might be most impressed by the fact that it's home to our country's first official Bark Ranger, a border collie named Gracie. Her work at the park—she does things like help keep the sheep and goats at a safe distance—is part of an effort to find better ways to manage the intersection of visitors and wildlife at our national parks. We had a chance to speak with Gracie's handler and favorite human, Mark Biel, Natural Resources Program Manager for Glacier National Park to get the 4-1-1 on this four-legged ranger.
OLLIE: Can you tell us about Gracie's background and how she came to be a "bark" ranger?
Biel: Gracie came to live with us at ten weeks old from a breeder in Sparta, Michigan. She came to be a bark ranger after it occurred to me that introducing a [so-called] predator to the Logan Pass environment might be a more effective management technique than the other hazing methods (such as waving plastic bags, shouting and arm-waving, or shaking rocks in a can) being used [to herd] sheep and goats.
OLLIE: What is a typical day like for Gracie?
Biel: On the days she works, she goes with me to my office and then rides up to Logan Pass. Her activities typically take place in the early morning or early evening. If sheep or goats are in the parking lot when they arrive, I use specific commands to ask Gracie to move them a safe distance from visitors, but where they can still be easily seen. Then Gracie and I move on to making visitor contacts while keeping a watchful eye on the animals. If no wildlife are present when we arrive, then we stick to spreading information about how to safely interact with park wildlife and why habituated wildlife are problematic.
OLLIE: Can you tell us about the bond between you and Gracie?
Biel: Gracie is a family pet first and a bark ranger second. I am her only handler. Her trainers observed that the personal bond between the two of us makes the work easier, because she wants to please me.
OLLIE: What are the most dangerous situations bark rangers encounter?
Biel: The greatest danger to both Gracie and me so far has been from vehicle traffic in the parking lot, which is one reason she has always worked on a leash to this point. If traffic becomes too heavy, hazing activities are ceased and we move into visitor-contact mode.
OLLIE: Why is using a dog like Gracie more effective for keeping bighorn sheep safe and away from crowds?
Biel: Findings from a nearly completed study of mountain goats at Logan Pass indicate that using Gracie for hazing keeps the sheep out of the parking lot for longer than more traditional hazing methods. While we see Gracie as a fluffy dog, the bighorns see her as a four-legged, wolf-like thing. In order to prevent the wildlife from becoming accustomed to Gracie, we maintain a random schedule of when she is there. The other methods are still used and can be effective; Gracie is another "tool in the box" for wildlife management.
OLLIE: Aside from her work herding the big horns, it seems that an important part of Gracie's job is to help inform the public about our responsibilities with wildlife. What makes her such a good teacher?
Biel: A significant part of her training was devoted to socialization activities intended to teach her to see strangers as friends. Also, many people love dogs, so she is a magnet for attention. I like to joke that although nobody might want to talk to me, they want to come over to meet her, which gives me the chance to talk with them about what she's doing and why it's important.
OLLIE: Is there any part of the job Gracie doesn't like?
Biel: Getting up early! Other than that there's really no part she doesn't like, although meeting hundreds of people each day can be a bit stressful and tiring. To alleviate that, she and I take frequent tennis ball breaks and other short trips to the car for some down time.
OLLIE: How many bark rangers are out there? And is there a way the public can support their training?
Biel: At the National Mall, contract border collies are used to keep geese out of the reflecting pool, and there is also an explosives detection dog stationed at Boston National Historical Park. But to our knowledge, Gracie is the only employee-owned bark ranger in the NPS who is actively involved in wildlife management. To support her, people can contact the Glacier National Park Conservancy and indicate that they want their donation to support Gracie's training and other bark ranger-related activities.
Keep up with Gracie and Mark on Instagram!