'Bark Ranger' Helps Lick Dangerous Wildlife Encounters In National Park

Sep 7, 2016
Originally published on September 7, 2016 11:53 am

Gracie has been training with Ally Cowan at the Wind River Bear Institute. Today they're trying to herd five sheep into a wooden corral, in a grassy valley a few hours south of Glacier National Park in Montana.

"Getting a border collie to drive, basically stay behind and push forward is a bit tougher," Cowan says. "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."

The 2-year-old border collie with icy blue eyes is part of a pilot program funded by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. Encounters between visitors to national parks and wild animals can go awry. Sometimes, it's the visitors who approach the animals, but just as often it's the animals that approach the visitors. So rangers here tried something new this summer: canine "Bark Rangers." It's Gracie's job to train wildlife to stay away from popular areas in the park and teach park visitors about safely viewing wildlife.

"We did see a lot of crazy stuff up there. People getting way too close, 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," says park ranger Mark Biel, Gracie's handler. "That's kind of unacceptable."

Mountain goats especially have taken to congregating at a parking lot at Logan Pass — the most remote and highest point you can reach in the park by car — to lick up sweet-tasting, but poisonous, antifreeze and eat the salty snacks tourists leave behind. Biel says that's a problem for the animals and for people.

"Some people don't necessarily make the connection they're still wild animals," he says. "They see them in such close proximity, they assume they're tame."

According to Dennis Madsen, who works in Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, "this is a natural behavior that reinforces their natural instinct to behave as a prey species and show respect to the predators."

Madsen's park started using collies in 2009 around aggressive deer protecting their newborn fawns.

"Like, for everybody involved, the deer and the dogs, it only took a day or two to figure out what their role was, and after the first week, the deer really came to understand that that was the new reality in the town site," Madsen says.

Within a few years, hostile encounters between deer and people in Waterton fell from 40 each season to just four.

On a foggy morning at Glacier's Logan Pass, park interns Aleta Forkum and Marisa Morrison treat Gracie like part of the team as she and Ranger Biel make their rounds of the parking lot. They stop often to pose for selfies with visitors. Gracie even has her own Instagram account, @barkrangernps.

Gracie's popularity helps Biel connect with visitors to talk about a range of safety issues, not just encounters with wildlife.

"No one wants to talk to me, but if they see her they come up and pet her, then I've got you," he says.

Biel says Gracie is doing a good job. Goats and sheep move away farther and stay away longer than they do when Biel uses other hazing methods, like firing empty shotgun shells or waving bags. The duo visit the parking lot only once or twice a week so the wildlife doesn't get used to Gracie.

"To us she's a pretty little border collie, but to them she's a fuzzy little wolf-like thing," he explains.

Based on Gracie's success this summer, Biel hopes to expand the program next season.

Copyright 2018 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Encounters between visitors and wild animals in national parks can go very wrong. Sometimes it's the visitors who approach the animals. But just as often, it's the animals that approach the visitors. Rangers in Montana's Glacier National Park have been trying something new this summer - canine bark rangers. Nicky Ouellet of Montana Public Radio reports.

NICKY OUELLET, BYLINE: Meet Gracie.

GRACIE: (Barking).

OUELLET: Gracie's been training with Ally Cowan...

ALLY COWAN: There, good girl.

OUELLET: ...At the Wind River Bear Institute. Today, they're trying to herd five sheep into a wooden corral in a grassy valley a few hours south of Glacier National Park.

COWAN: Getting a border collie to drive, basically stay behind and push forward, is a little bit tougher. For Gracie, we are working against that instinct a little bit because for a wild sheep or goat, we don't want her bringing them closer to people. We want her pushing them away.

OUELLET: The 2-year-old border collie with icy blue eyes is part of a pilot program funded by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. It's Gracie's job to train wildlife to stay away from popular areas in the park and teach park visitors about safely viewing wildlife.

MARK BIEL: We did see a lot of, you know, crazy stuff up there, people getting way too close...

OUELLET: Mark Biel is Gracie's handler and a park ranger.

BIEL: ...Trying to take pictures or surrounding a goat, you know, with the kid on the outside, running around crying, trying to get to mom. But, you know, there's 15 people around, mom taking a picture and, you know, that's kind of unacceptable.

OUELLET: Mountain goats especially have taken to congregating at a parking lot at Logan Pass - the most remote and highest point you can reach in the park by car - to lick up sweet-tasting antifreeze and eat the salty snacks tourists leave behind. Biel says that's a problem for the animals and for people.

BIEL: Some people don't necessarily make the connection that they're still wild animals. They see them in such close proximity that they assume they're tame.

DENNIS MADSEN: This is a natural behavior that just reinforces their natural instinct to behave as a prey species and show respect to the predators.

OUELLET: Dennis Madsen works in Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. His park started using collies in 2009 around aggressive deer protecting their newborn fawns.

MADSEN: Like, for everybody involved, the deer and the dogs, it only took a day or two for everyone to figure out what their role was. And after the first week, the deer really came to understand that that was the new reality in the town site.

OUELLET: Within a few years, hostile encounters between deer and people in Waterton fell from 40 each season to just four.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: Hi, Gracie.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi, sweetheart.

OUELLET: On a foggy morning at Logan Pass, park interns Aleta Forkum and Marisa Morrison treat Gracie like part of the team as she and Ranger Mike Biel make their rounds of the parking lot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Any action this morning for you guys when you got up here?

BIEL: Yeah, there's seven rams in the parking lot.

OUELLET: They stop often to pose for selfies with visitors.

BIEL: She has her own Instagram account.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, really?

BIEL: Absolutely - @barkrangernps.

OUELLET: Gracie's popularity helps Biel connect with visitors to talk about a range of safety issues, not just encounters with wildlife.

BIEL: 'Cause no one wants to talk to me. But if they see her, they'll come up and pet her, and then I got you.

OUELLET: Biel says Gracie's doing a good job. Goats and sheep move away farther and stay away longer than they do when Biel uses other hazing methods, like firing empty shotgun shells or waving bags. He and Gracie only visit the parking lot once or twice a week so wildlife doesn't get used to her.

BIEL: To us, she's a, you know, pretty little border collie, but to them, she's a fuzzy little wolf-like thing.

OUELLET: Based on Gracie's success this summer, Biel hopes to expand the program next season. For NPR News, I'm Nicky Ouellet in Glacier National Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.