The last couple years have produced some horror stories of national park visitors interacting with wildlife. The baby bison put in the trunk of a car, the bear selfie craze in Tahoe, and countless other close encounters that happen almost daily in our parks that don’t make the news. These days, most people just really want a picture.
Mark Biel, Glacier National Park’s Natural Resources Program Manager, is on the front lines of this issue everyday, which is exactly how he came up with the idea for Gracie. At two years old, Biel’s jovial border collie, which he bought as a pet, is just finishing up training to essentially become the first canine wildlife manager in the National Park Service. Gracie has two jobs: work with Biel in the field to keep animals a safe distance away from visitors, and the other as a sort of figurehead and excuse for Biel and other park employees to talk about how to interact with animals.
Here, a few images from the time I spent with Biel and Gracie at the park in northern Montana this August.
Photo: Two bighorn sheep causing a welcomed traffic delay near Lunch Creek in Glacier National Park.After receiving a grant through generous support from the Glacier National Park Conservancy, Gracie spent more than a month boarding and training with Ally Cowan and Kelsey Hay of the Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI) this May. Just a few hours south of Glacier, WRBI specializes in training Karelian bear dogs, which are used in packs to safely remove bears from populated or unsafe areas—think mountain town dumpsters and campsites. Biel thought WRBI would be a great fit for this specialized training on dealing with animals.WRBI’s Cowan and Hay have spent most of the summer working with Gracie and Biel to develop a program and fine-tune Gracie’s instinctive herding skills in addition to developing good behavior around groups of people.
Border collies are known for being super trainable. They are smart, very in tune with their trainer or owner, and super eager to please. All of these characteristics have led to them being used for a variety of these nontraditional tasks including controlling deer at Glacier’s sister park Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, and even scaring away geese at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C.Biel has been at Glacier for six years and in the NPS for 26 years at places like Bryce Canyon, Devils Tower, and Padre Island National Seashore. He released the fourth and sixth wolves back into Yellowstone in 1995 and has dedicated his life to our national parks and the wilderness inside them. He’s noticeably excited about his new sidekick and hopes success with Gracie can translate to dogs being used in parks across the country.Stay 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 yards away from all other animals is the general NPS rule. It is not followed. When we pulled into the Lunch Creek pullout just past the famous Logan Pass in late August, twenty or so park visitors were closely watching a couple bighorn sheep feed just off the road. It was some of Gracie’s first close range action.Gracie and Biel did well. After a few standoffs and staredowns, the bighorn sheep retreated and moved on, at least for a bit. Gracie is going to win a lot of these temporary battles. She and Biel will be able to separate animals and visitors pretty reliably, but of course they won’t always be around.
More importantly, Biel was able to show that crowd Gracie and teach people the safest and most sustainable way to view wildlife.The bighorn sheep, as Biel predicted, didn’t really go away and emerged just a few minutes later. Biel’s new plan was to usher them across the road into a much more open wilderness zone where they would have plenty of room to be left unbothered.Another standoff and another partial victory for Gracie as the sheep momentarily skirted into the trees. The sheep weren’t too excited by the sight of Gracie and tried stomping their feet and looking tough. Gracie held her ground, much to the excitement of Gracie’s trainers and Biel.Shortly after our encounter, a park ranger arrived after responding to a call something along the lines of “there is a guy chasing sheep with a dog near Logan Pass.” It was Biel and Gracie. They are a brand new site around the park.Biel brings Gracie to Logan Pass twice a week currently in an effort to keep her engaged and not overworked. Most evenings, a few bighorn sheep will be around the heavily trafficked trail system for Gracie to work with.Glacier National Park, in general cold and at a high elevation, has become this sort of poster child for scientists and wildlife managers like Biel studying climate change. In 1850, there were 150 glaciers within what is now the park. Only 25 remain and are expected to be gone in the next 20 years.
The mountain goat populations are healthy, but are being pushed higher and into more concentrated places like Logan Pass. Already at the apex of their habitat, there is nowhere else for them to go. It’s yet another reason why wildlife management with tools and ideas like Gracie are becoming so important.Biel must have talked to thirty different people about Gracie during my afternoon with him. Some even recognized her from a few local news articles and TV appearances. The message is getting out. Gracie even has her own Instagram.Gracie wondering why Biel is breaking the 25 yards away rule.We only saw one mountain goat rolling down from Logan Pass. It was just off the road, no one was taking pictures, and Gracie was asleep in the backseat.