Dog Hired To Protect Wildlife At Glacier National Park

A border collie named Gracie is the first dog to be employed by a national park.

Her job should come to her naturally. Gracie herds sheep for her owner, Mark Biel, and her job will be to keep bighorn sheep and mountain goats out of the way of tourists at Glacier National Park in Montana.

According to the Bend Bulletin, the Glacier National Park Conservancy “funded the project specifically to manage a herd of mountain goats and about seven bighorn sheep that have become unnaturally accustomed to humans around Logan Pass.”

By “unnaturally accustomed,” they mean that the sheep and goats are coming down from the mountains to lick the road salt off the car bumpers of tourists who drive through the park.

With goat/tourist encounters on the rise, other methods were used to try to drive the animals out of public parking spaces. The Washington Times reported that park rangers have tried using shotguns with non-lethal ammunition, sirens, and whips. But dogs are the method of choice, as they are non-invasive and trained not to harm the wildlife.

Biel, who is the natural resources program manager at Glacier, has worked in five different parks over 23 years. He’s been dealing with human-wildlife interaction issues the whole time.

“The sheep and goats are highly attracted to salt. People who stop and take a leak off the side of the road or leave sweaty packs sitting around attract them. They like to lick the salt off rocks and backpack straps. Salt is a huge driver.”

The sheep and goats have learned over time that areas with the most people are the safest places to hide from predators. The park-savvy prey animals understand that chances of encountering a wolf or mountain lion in a parking lot are slim to none.

Meanwhile, the human population in the park is skyrocketing, with 41,000 more visitors than last summer.

Gracie’s job is to keep sheep away from areas with pavement.

Biel said that the sheep will probably require a few repetitions of being chased off before they start to get the gist of their boundaries.

“It’s important for the public to understand that they will still be able to see the wildlife. When people heard about the program, they were concerned they’d never get to see the goats anymore. We’re just pushing them to a safe distance, for them and for people.”

Gracie was inducted into training at Wind River Bear Institute in Florence in April. Her training was divided into four areas: basic manners, basic manners off-leash, manners in large groups of people, and sheep herding.

Allyson Cowan, the Wind River dog training program coordinator, said the dog had come far in just three months of training.

“Gracie had about 10 good minutes in her before she would come ask for help. She was discouraged by the sheep and would give up. Now it’s the complete opposite. We can’t get her to stop.”

Widely acknowledged as the most intelligent canines on the planet, the use of border collies for practical purposes in controlling wildlife is spreading. They are becoming more popular in keeping birds away from airports, an important safety consideration for jets and planes during landing and takeoff.

Usually pleasant and tractable, the dogs are friendly and sharp and fun to watch with their athletic form and crisp markings.

Dogs like Gracie take to the work very naturally.

“This might be where the future of wildlife management is,” Biel said. “It’s more cost effective and generally effective than contracting out to private companies and their dogs. If this works, I can see it taking off.”

[Image via Michael Dorogovich/Shutterstock]