‘Bark ranger’ helps park rangers keep animals and people safe

Gracie is a 2-year-old border collie with a mission. She is Glacier National Park’s first “bark ranger” — a skilled herder, she keeps mountain goats and bighorn sheep away from park visitors.

Gracie also helps rangers teach visitors good park manners. Getting too close to wildlife to take selfies isn’t a good idea for animals or humans, for example. And trying to touch the wildlife isn’t smart either. Both are problems in national parks.

A park ranger’s job is to manage wildlife and park visitors. Traditional methods of keeping wildlife away from the public — mostly making loud noises — have limitations.

That’s when it occurred to Mark Biel, who is a ranger and the park’s natural resources director, that his pet border collie Gracie might make a good canine ranger.

Two people holding dog while riding in car (NPS/Jacob W. Frank)
Gracie poses with former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and ranger Mark Biel. (NPS/Jacob W. Frank)

So Gracie was sent to school at the Wind River Bear Institute in Montana, where Karelian bear dogs are trained to keep park bears away from people.

Gracie did well, and she was hired to herd the bighorns. Just seeing Gracie was enough to keep wildlife at bay, because she resembles a formidable predator — a wolf. “They’d see her, run out of the parking lot and stay away for a couple of hours,” Biel said.

“They definitely recognize her as a threat,” public affairs officer Tim Rains said.

Border collie and people looking over wall near mountain (NPS/A.W. Biel)
Gracie attracts tourists, giving the ranger a chance to interact with them. (NPS/A.W. Biel)

Gracie’s success in wildlife management is matched by her public relations triumph. She boosted the park’s outreach tenfold, Rains said, not only to visitors inside the park but on social media. Gracie’s Instagram account @barkrangernps grew to nearly 10,000 followers from 4,000 in just three days.

“She can be a voice for wildlife management. She’s a tool in the toolbox that we just haven’t had before,” Rains said.

Dogs help people in many ways, such as enabling those with disabilities to perform daily tasks, while others find land mines or help protect the White House.

Other dogs making their marks in public service

Dog standing on rock at airport (Courtesy of airportk9.org)
Piper on patrol at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Michigan. (airportk9.org)

Piper the Border Collie is famous in Traverse City, Michigan. He’s the “Airport K-9” who chases birds off the tarmac to prevent avian collisions with aircraft.

Dog climbing out of pool with Lincoln Memorial in background (Courtesy of Doug Marcks)
Belle patrols the Reflecting Pool — inside and out — to keep geese away. (Courtesy photo)

Border collies in the Geese Police discourage flocks of Canada geese on the Washington National Mall from dirtying monuments. The Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial was once thick with bird poop, but no more.

Dog sniffing boat with man following (NPS/A.W. Biel)
Golden retriever Tobias inspects a boat for invasive species. (NPS/A.W. Biel)

Back at Glacier National Park, on boat-inspection days, golden retriever Tobias visits to sniff out invasive aquatic species such as zebra mussels. Mussel infestations degrade the ecosystem and clog water-intake systems.

Biel says next summer he and Gracie will be back at Logan Pass. And she’ll continue to show that tall bighorn ram who tries to challenge her who’s boss.

World Wildlife Day, held March 3, celebrates the diversity of the planet’s plants and animals. Follow @WildlifeDay on Twitter, and use hashtag #WorldWildlifeDay to join the conversation.