Bark Ranger Gracie has a big job at Glacier National Park: to keep wildlife away from high visitor use areas in the park. But once she’s finished her work, Ranger Mark Biel steps in and educates visitors on the importance of wildlife safety. Listen in to this episode of Podcasts with Park Rangers to find out more about changing our mindset around how we interact with the animals in the parks.
- About Ranger Mark Biel
- About Glacier National Park
- Why are glacial lakes blue or teal?
- Work With Bark Ranger Gracie
- Visitor Wildlife Safety Education
- Why Did Glacier Begin the Bark Ranger Program?
- Looking Towards Other Parks For Inspiration
- Gracie – From Family Dog to Bark Ranger
- What Do Other Parks Do Without a Bark Ranger?
- Gracie’s Winter Work
- Wildlife Incidents That Spurred This Decision
- Gracie’s Days Off
- How To Measure Gracie’s Effectiveness?
- Changing The Mindset Around Wildlife Safety
- Wildlife Trading Cards
- Why Keep Wildlife Wild?
- Mark’s Connection with Gracie
- Ranger Mark’s Love for Glacier and the NPS
- Glacier National Park Volunteer Associates
- Thanks to Our Listeners – Let’s Connect More!
About Ranger Mark Biel
Ranger Mark Biel is the Natural Resources Program Manager at Glacier National Park. He’s worked with the Park Service for 25 years, 8 of which have been at Glacier.
Mark’s background is in wildlife management. He started at Yellowstone in bear and bison management and he also aided in the wolf reintroduction. However, many of you might know him for his recent work at Glacier with Bark Ranger Gracie.
Gracie is Mark’s family pet who he trained to keep wild animals off the road and away from park visitors. Gracie is a bit of a celebrity, and helps mark teach visitors about wildlife safety.
About Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park derives its names from the glacial process which shaped the park rather than the glacier remnants left in the park. The park spans over 1 million acres and is located in the heart of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem. The Blackfeet Indians call it the Backbone of the World based on the jagged peaks of the mountains.
The Continental Divide runs through the whole park from north to south and its known for high alpine environments and unique vegetation. West of the divide is a wetter more temperate climate and east of the divide is drier and occupied by grasslands.
The iconic Going to the Sun Road is 54 miles long and runs east to west through beautiful passes along a narrow road with steep drop offs. Additionally, a trail system over 740 miles makes this park a hiker’s paradise!
Why are glacial lakes blue or teal?
Many people know the park for its teal and blue lakes. The color derives from glacial flour, generated as glaciers grind against the mountain rock.
Sediment from this process is carried by snow melt in the summers down to the rivers and lakes in the park to create the unique hues of water visitors see on a trip to Glacier National Park.
The snow melt also creates a ton of waterfalls. Hikers can see the best waterfall displays in the late Spring and early Summer seasons.
Work With Bark Ranger Gracie
Ranger Mark uses Bark Ranger Gracie to remove wildlife from Logan Pass and other high visitor use areas in the park.
Often times, people see bighorn sheep and mountain goats and forget the animals are wild. This can lead to dangerous encounters, so the park comes up with ways to keep wildlife a safe distance from visitors.
That’s where Gracie comes in. She stalks towards the goats and sheep with her “border collie creep”. The animals see the Bark Ranger as a threat and move about 50-75 yards away.
At that point, Mark and Gracie “release the pressure” to enforce a hardline where wildlife can graze in safety without interacting with visitors. And, from that point on, Gracie and Mark’s work turns towards wildlife safety education for visitors.
Visitor Wildlife Safety Education
After Gracie does her job, visitors approach Ranger Mark with questions like:
- What is a Bark Ranger?
- Why does the Bark Ranger do that?
- Why is it such a concern?
If it were only Ranger Mark, most visitors wouldn’t want to approach him with these types of questions. However, with Gracie, people are attracted to this beautiful blue merle border collie.
People want to pet her and interact with her. And, as Mark says, once they approach to start a conversation about Gracie he’s “got ‘em”! He then uses the opportunity to educate visitors about wildlife safety!
Why Did Glacier Begin the Bark Ranger Program?
With record high visitation at Glacier National Park over the past 5 years, the park needed to implement a management plan for the Going to the Sun Road corridor. Rangers looked for ways to disperse visitor use and attract visitors to different areas of the park.
During this process, they asked for the public’s opinion about their issues in the park. And, one major concern which continued to come up with both Rangers and the public was an increase in the number of human/wildlife interactions.
These types of interactions can be harmful to not just humans, but the wildlife as well. So, Ranger Mark decided to be proactive.
Looking Towards Other Parks For Inspiration
Mark didn’t have to look far. Glacier’s sister park — Waterton Lakes National Park — is right across the border in Canada.
Waterton contracts with a company which uses border collies to move the mule deer. The deer would move into the housing area of town to drop their fawns. And, as good mothers do, they protected their offspring. At Waterton, this meant aggressive charges at people who came too close.
An increase in the number of predators, like grizzlies, also came into town in search of the deer. With the use of the border collies, Waterton has seen a decrease in the amount of human/wildlife interactions with both deer and predators.
In the US, the National Mall in DC uses a company called the Geese Police who employ border collies to keep duck and geese out of the reflecting pool and surrounding lawn. The birds would fowl up the pool and drive up costs for the park.
In the 90s, Glacier used karelian bear dogs, bred to deal with bears, to keep bears from becoming habituated along the roads of the park.
Gracie – From Family Dog to Bark Ranger
Ranger Mark first welcomed Gracie to his family as their new pet, and he never intended for her to become a working dog. However, he began to realize this eager border collie could be trained to do what other parks contracted with external agencies to accomplish.
He ran the idea across the park leadership team at Glacier National Park. They approved the training, but said he needed to find the funding. So, he approached the Glacier National Park Conservancy for a grant. The Conservancy approved the grant, and sent him to the Wind River Bear Institute near Missoula, MT to begin training.
Bark Ranger Gracie has worked at the park for 3 years now. Additionally, the pursuit proves cost effective, because to do what Mark does with Gracie would cost $10,000 or more per year with a contractor. They were trained for under $10,000, and all from private donations.
What Do Other Parks Do Without a Bark Ranger?
Aversive conditioning, or hazing, is done to keep animals out of high visitor use areas in other parks. Types of hazing include:
- Clearing visitors out and using a vehicle with a loud siren to scare animals away.
- Rocks shaken in an aluminum can.
- Shaking a black plastic garbage can visually and auditorily scare away animals.
While many of these options work well, they often lose their effectiveness over time.
Glacier still uses these types of hazing, because Ranger Mark and Gracie can only get up to Logan Pass once a week. Unfortunately, other work draws Mark away, and he can’t be a Bark Ranger handler all the time.
So far, Gracie is and remains effective in hazing the mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
Gracie’s Winter Work
During the past two winters, they’ve used Gracie around the Ranger housing to keep deer away. The deer attract mountain lions, so it’s in the parks interest to keep the deer out.
When deer see Gracie, they move 50-100 yards away. Ranger Mark has found both a morning and evening walk to be sufficient for this purpose.
Wildlife Incidents That Spurred This Decision
A habituated goat followed a hiker in Olympic National Park. The goat may have seen them as a source of food or salt. Eventually, it became aggressive and charged the visitor, severing an artery, and they bled out.
When Glacier opened the comment period for the Going to the Sun Road corridor management plan, the public mentioned this particular incident over and over.
Additionally, people often take pictures around wildlife with kids. The mountain goats and sheep seem tolerant of people getting close and they seem tame. However, incidents like the above prove otherwise.
They’ve found an increase in the number of visitors feeding animals — which is illegal in National Parks. And, an increase in trash at Logan Pass means food remnants and waste draw wildlife to the parking lot.
Goats and sheep also follow people off trail as they heed nature’s call because the animals use urine as a source minerals in their diet.
A combination of all the above led to Bark Ranger Gracie’s training to become a deterrent for wildlife, and to be used as a tool for wildlife safety education.
Gracie’s Days Off
When Gracie’s not working up at Logan Pass, she’s at home curled up on the back deck or in the backyard. Sometimes Ranger Mark’s cat Bob and Gracie hang out, but it’s more of a frenemy relationship.
On occasion, Bob chases Gracie around the house. Mark finds it a bit funny to see a 12 lb cat chasing a 45 lb border collie around the house!
How To Measure Gracie’s Effectiveness?
What metrics can the park use to measure success?
For every hazing event, with or without Gracie, Glacier gathers a number of statistics:
- The number of animals near the road.
- How far away from the road they are before hazing?
- Did they move after hazing?
- How long they stay away after the event?
As of right now, the park does not have enough data to scientifically state if Gracie is more effective than other methods.
And while Ranger Mark doesn’t have scientific data, the amount of work he puts into wildlife education is worthwhile. It’s bigger than anything he ever imagined it could become.
Gracie is an international celebrity. Earlier this year, international tour coordinators met in Kalispell just outside of Glacier, and they all wanted to meet the Bark Ranger. Mark brought her to the conference and she met coordinators from Italy, France, Germany and 15 other countries.
Changing The Mindset Around Wildlife Safety
It’s a big ship to turn, and to change the mindset around wildlife safety seems like a monumental task. However, the NPS was successful in the past with bear education.
Until the 60s and 70s, people used to go to the dump and watch bears eat garbage and feed them in the parks. After nearly 30 years of education, the majority of people you ask today would say that’s a horrible idea.
Ranger Mark hopes his work with Gracie will shift the mindset over time with all wildlife much like the bear education movement.
He advises safe viewing distances are:
- 100 yards from bears or wolves
- 25 yards everything else
People are often confused when wildlife approaches them about what they should do, but it’s their responsibility to move out of nature’s way.
Wildlife Trading Cards
Ranger Mark added another tool to the education tool box by employing a set of wildlife trading cards. Each card has a safety message on it: “Wildlife might know better, but you do”. They have a general card with the distances park visitors should maintain, as well as 9 cards with commonly habituated animals in Glacier. And, of course, one with Bark Ranger Gracie explaining the program.
Mark wanted a positive way to educate on wildlife safety. In one particular incident, he found a young kid feeding potato chips to ground squirrels. Of course, he got all “rangery” and said the kid couldn’t do that. The ground squirrels bite, carry disease, and become habituated.
He was about to ask where the kids parents were, only to find they were taking pictures of him feeding the wildlife. Then, the parents left nowhere to be seen with Mark unsure what to do.
He thought it would be better to talk in a positive manner with visitors, rather than get angry. And, the wildlife trading cards were created with another grant from the Glacier National Park Conservancy.
Now, Rangers who interact with the public in all capacities carry the cards. Law enforcement, maintenance, interpretive rangers and resource rangers can educate the public. They can hand out cards to teach people proper safety and reward those who also advocate for the safety of the animals in the park.
Why Keep Wildlife Wild?
We asked Mark, “Why keep wildlife wild?” Perhaps for the sake of preserving the wild state that we have in our mind of these animals.
We don’t imagine them eating garbage or licking antifreeze, but Glacier has had issues with those activities. Too much antifreeze might not be good for the mountain goat, but the park hasn’t hit that tipping point quite yet.
Additionally, human food causes the animals to gain bad kinds of fat which they don’t easily burn off.
Wildlife along the roads may cause more animal death by vehicular collision.
And of course, Ranger Mark emphasized close proximity to the wildlife is not safe for people! Animals carry diseases and parasites. Or, you could be physically injured or killed.
Mark’s Connection with Gracie
When Mark and Gracie work together, it’s a special connection. They work together often enough it’s to the point where Gracie knows what Mark needs before he asks.
She knows when to go left before he signals or she begins work on a task before he even gives a command. Border collies are very smart breed and the connection between the two runs deep.
Ranger Mark’s Love for Glacier and the NPS
Glacier National Park offers so many opportunities for recreation, and he loves it there. He intends to stay in Glacier long term.
He’s inspired by the scenery along the Going to the Sun Road, and how around every corner more and more amazing views are to be had. The whole park is continually awe inspiring, and he enjoys hiking in the park.
To get away from your worries of the day or to be reminded of your place in the universe is valuable to Ranger Mark. To be in charge of places the American public deemed to set aside is a great feeling, and he considers himself lucky to be doing his job!
Glacier National Park Volunteer Associates
Glacier National Park enlists volunteers to do everything from administrative work and maintenance to backcountry patrols and river guiding. Their volunteer efforts are coordinated through the Glacier National Park Volunteer Associates organization. To find out more visit gnpva.org.
Thanks to Our Listeners – Let’s Connect More!
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