Early this summer, crews at Glacier National Park will plow away the snow that leads to Logan Pass, where trails wind through fields of wildflowers. By July, masses of people will be driving and taking shuttle buses to the parking lot and visitors’ center at the top.
And if past years are any guide, mountain goats and bighorn sheep will be ambling down to greet them.
The animals like to lick salty things, and the annual arrival of humans offers them a veritable buffet, according to park spokeswoman Margie Steigerwald. She said sheep and goat tastes lean toward “anti-freeze that’s dripped by vehicles, and it includes places where people spit or pee because they didn’t want to wait for the restroom.” The wildlife have been undeterred by park workers who shake rock-filled cans or yell at them, push them back or otherwise “haze” them, she said.
So this year, the Montana park has a new employee that it hopes will herd the goats and sheep in the parking lot: a dog. Specifically, it’s a border collie, so it’s pretty much getting its dream summer job.
Park authorities have become increasingly worried that the hoofed hikers’ boldness will lead to trouble for the animals or the humans — particularly this year, when National Park Service’s 100th anniversary could bring even bigger hordes of visitors, many of whom will probably see the goats and sheep as selfie props. They’re no grizzlies, but that doesn’t make them gentle: In 2010, a visitor at Olympic National Park was fatally gored by a mountain goat.
“They do have very sharp horns,” said Steigerwald. “We want people to see wildlife, but we want them to see it at a safe distance.”
The dog is a 2-year-old female named Gracie, and the park is, naturally, calling her a “bark ranger.” She’s owned by Glacier’s natural resources program manager, Mark Biel, who came up with the idea after learning that it had helped solve human-animal interaction problems — a common headache for national parks — elsewhere.
Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada uses border collies to keep mule deer away from people, and the herding breed has also been deployed as “geese police” at the Lincoln Memorial and other spots on the Mall in D.C. In the 1990s, Glacier used specially-trained Karelian bear dogs to shoo bears away from roadsides, and with that, Steigerwald said, “we were able to keep new generations of bears from learning those bad habits.”
Border collies have herding in their blood, but Gracie’s also learning the sheep- and goat-herding ropes at the Wind River Bear Institute in Florence, Mont., which trains the Karelian bear dogs that Glacier used. For now, her subjects are domestic sheep, Steigerwald said, and “this dog’s really smart. … She’s ahead in her training.”
Gracie, clad in an orange vest, will begin her duties in July, and she’ll hit the parking lot only a few times a month, when there aren’t too many tourists or cars, Steigerwald said. The hope is that the goats and sheep, which fear wolves and coyotes, will do Gracie’s bidding.
“Wildlife are pretty smart and they learn pretty quickly whether something has a consequence,” Biel told the Daily Inter Lake. “Granted, she doesn’t look like a wolf, but to them, she’s a four-legged, dog-like thing.”