Glacier National Park has a new ranger. Gracie is a two-year-old border collie. Starting in mid-July, Gracie will herd mountain goats and bighorn sheep out of popular areas, like the parking lot and trails at Logan Pass, to keep humans and wildlife a safe distance from each other.
But before heading up to the pass, she needs training. For the past few weeks, she’s working with Ally Cowan, a trainer at the Wind River Bear Institute south of Missoula. Today Cowan is trying to get Gracie to move five sheep in circles around a small pen.
"Getting a border collie to drive, basically stay behind and push forward is a bit tougher than it would be for say a blue healer, that is bred to drive cattle," Cowan explains. "For Gracie we are working against that instinct a little bit because for a wild goat we don't want her bringing them closer to people, we want her pushing them away."
Mountain goats especially have set up camp in the parking lot at Logan Pass.
Mark Biel, the wildlife manager who will handle Gracie, thinks it’s because people up there scare away predators. While that makes it really convenient to see wildlife, Biel says that closeness presents some problems.
"We did see a lot of crazy stuff up there," he says. "People getting way too close and trying to take pictures, or surrounding a goat with a kid on the outside running around crying, trying to get to mom, but you know, there’s 15 people around mom taking a picture. That's kind of unacceptable."
Biel says that he’s seen as many as four to five red-flag incidents an hour on the trails around Logan pass. Nothing serious so far, but more and more tourists are coming to the park each year.
Crowds have been growing in Yellowstone, too, and it’s been a struggle keeping them a safe distance from wild animals. Managers can’t police every encounter. It’s up to people to know and follow park guidelines.
Biel says that’s also part of Gracie’s job, to help teach people what’s ok when viewing wildlife.
"That's what we're going for. It's a double-pronged attack of shepherding them away and educating the public," he says.
Wildlife shepherding is a tactic that’s also been used north of the border, in Waterton Lakes National Park. The town of Waterton was having a big problem with aggressive deer protecting their newborns. The deer were attacking tourists and even killed a few pet dogs.
"We were wondering how we could change that situation and bring it back into balance," says Dennis Madsen, resource conservation manager for Waterton Lakes National Park.
Madsen says that eight years ago, it was normal to see 30 to 40 aggressive encounters with deer in a season. In 2009, the park hired a handler and a team of border collies to herd deer out of Waterton. They did it for five weeks each season, when deer were most aggressive right after giving birth in May. The results were almost instant.
"For everybody involved, the deer and the dogs, it only took a day or two to figure out what their role was," he says. "After the first week the deer really came to understand that that was the new reality in the townsite."
Within 3 years, the number of aggressive encounters fell from 40 each season to four. This year, the deer shepherding program is on hiatus to test if deer have permanently learned to stay out of Waterton during fawning season.
"This is a natural behavior that just reinforces their natural instinct to behave as a prey species and show respect to the predators," Madsen says.
That’s exactly how Mark Biel hopes goats and sheep will react at that parking lot in Glacier.
"Logan Pass, you have to admit, is a unique area because you can drive to see bighorn sheep and mountain goats," Biel says. "So we don't want to ruin that experience, but we do want to get them a safer distance away."
Back at the training pen south of Missoula, Gracie still needs some practice, but eventually she manages to drive the sheep instead of fetch them.
Biel and Gracie start working at Logan Pass in mid-July. Visitors at Glacier National Park can catch them in action once a week throughout the summer.