Gracie the border collie began life blissfully unemployed and surrounded by the beauty of Montana’s Glacier National Park, getting treats and belly rubs from her dad and now-handler, Park Ranger Mark Biel.
When Gracie was almost 2 years old, Ranger Mark had an idea: their sister park in Canada uses border collies to disperse habituated wildlife away from human-populated areas, so why couldn’t Gracie do the same in her own wild backyard?
Habituated wildlife refers to wild animals who, like Gracie’s bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and deer, lose their natural (and sensible) fear of humans as a result of constant exposure to people. This could be the beginning of a dangerous situation if park guests decide the animals’ closeness is an invitation to approach, feed, or even try to pet—and that’s where this Bark Ranger’s unique wildlife shepherding skills come in.
When people gather in the parking lot at Glacier National Park’s Logan Pass, so do the bighorn sheep, drawn in by dropped food and road salt on the lot surface.
Gracie’s job is to move them a safe distance away while not making physical contact, protecting both the emboldened animals and visitors.
How did Gracie get her paw in the door of such a dream gig? Well, she got an education. Gracie went away to Wind River Bear Institute in Florence, Montana to first hone her herding skills—she is a natural, after all. But then her trainers flipped it all upside-down, helping Gracie un-learn everything she knew and do the exact opposite of herding. That is, moving the sheep away, rather than corralling them together, as border collies are wont to do.
It’s a fascinating concept, especially when that instinct to herd is rooted in genetics. Gracie’s training began with 2 weeks of pre-training at home, where she and Mark perfected the obedience basics.
She then headed out for 10 weeks of intensive training, learning to “push around” domestic sheep and get comfortable being in places with lots of people and noises (a.k.a. a tourist destination). An additional 2 weeks of training followed, aimed at making Mark and Gracie the ultimate dream team.
“I learned how to give the commands,” said Mark, “and [Gracie] learned how I give them, and we figured each other out.” A little encouragement with a bright yellow B-A-L-L never hurt, either.
Gracie even practiced with a bighorn sheep “puppet” to really perfect her new superpower.
Wildlife shepherding is not a new concept—rangers also use simple tactics like waving arms, shouting, and shaking cans of rocks to drive wildlife away—but to the sheep, Gracie is a predator, and predators are an effective prey deterrent.
Interestingly enough, there is another phenomenon at play at Logan Pass, and it’s not just the empty cheeseburger wrappers luring sheep to populated areas. Ranger Mark explains it best:
There’s so many people at Logan Pass that there’s very few, if any, predators that hang out there, and the sheep and goats have that dialed in, and that’s why they hang out, because the people basically protect them. It’s called a predator shield.
No bears or mountain lions inside that “predator shield” means these prey animals get gutsy! But as much as they’d like to get ahold of your fast food leftovers, they’re safer about 30–70 yards away, which is about how far Gracie is trained to scoot them.
When she’s not scattering sheep, Gracie and Ranger Mark serve as wildlife-safety ambassadors, teaching well-intentioned folks and their little ones that wild animals need to stay wild. Don’t worry, she’s salaried with treats, belly rubs, and great benefits (unlimited ear scratches).
The pair can also be found giving presentations at schools and to environmental groups like the Sierra Club. Mark explains that the goal is to “teach people to be respectful… and not do anything to put themselves or the animals at risk.”
With any luck, Logan Pass will reopen this summer around July, when the snow is cleared and guests can make it successfully to Gracie’s parking lot home-office. After a winter of keeping deer and their predators safely distanced, Gracie and Ranger Mark are always prepared for a summer of de-sheeping, taking photos with the public, and keeping Glacier National Park’s wildlife wild.
We would love for our dogs to experience the beauty of our National Parks by our sides, but dog-friendly access varies from park to park. Dogs visiting Glacier National Park must be leashed and are only permitted in developed areas (frontcountry campgrounds, picnic areas, parking areas, etc.) and are not permitted on trails, along lakeshores outside of those where motorized boats are allowed, or in the backcountry.
Please always check where, when, or if your dog is permitted before taking them along on a grand park adventure! If your dog is able to tag along, remember to pick up after them and never leave them unattended in your car.