Amid concerns about the increasingly bold mountain goats and bighorn sheep that lurk around Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, Gracie, a specially trained border collie, is set to join the park staff this summer.
Glacier’s abundant wildlife are star attractions, but for years staffers have been growing concerned about the potential for the bovine cliff-dwellers to injure a visitor not accustomed to dealing with wild animals.
An ongoing study of the park’s goat population indicates the animals have become accustomed to the artificial salt licks left by park visitors sweating and relieving themselves along the well-used Highline Trail and other popular haunts in the Logan Pass area.
Mark Biel, Glacier’s natural resources program manager and Gracie’s owner, has observed the problem firsthand.
“As far as we know, there have been no reports of anybody getting injured, but there are some pretty eyebrow-raising interactions that we see of people getting too close for a picture or surrounding the goat and cutting her off from her kid,” he said. “They’re still wild animals and unpredictable.”
Biel started kicking around the idea of a “goat dog” a couple years ago, after learning about staff in Waterton Lakes National Park using border collies to haze habituated deer from the Waterton Village. The breed has also been used to deter ducks and geese from fouling the famous Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C.
“I saw that and thought, ‘Why can’t we do something like that here?’ I have a dog that’s bred to do that, I wonder if that would work,” he said. “Wildlife are pretty smart and they learn pretty quickly whether something has a consequence. Granted, she doesn’t look like a wolf, but to them, she’s a four-legged, dog-like thing, so there’s that innate feat.”
Gracie has already begun her training, and Biel will soon test his idea after getting the green light from the park and landing a grant from the Glacier National Park Conservancy.
Despite the novelty of having a goat dog on staff, the techniques Biel and Gracie will use won’t be nearly as dramatic as the those employed by Karelian bear dogs, a special breed used by wildlife managers to haze grizzly and black bears that have become habituated to humans and unnatural food sources.
“It’s actually going to be very boring to watch. It’s going to be very slow, what we call ‘applying pressure’ to the animal,” Biel said. “We just kind of keep moving forward slowly, being a presence that can make them uncomfortable so they gradually and slowly move away.”
Gracie will focus her efforts at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and nearby high-use areas, but Biel said they will only work a few times a month, and only when the crowds are thin enough to avoid creating a danger to tourists.
“We’re just talking about moving them a safe distance away from the edge, so visitors can still see the goats from 50 or 100 yards away,” he said. “The plan is not to completely remove these animals or keep them away for the area.”
So far, Gracie is on track to start work in July after earning top marks halfway through her two-month training.
Ally Cowan is the dog training program coordinator for the Florence-based Wind River Bear Institute, which operates at a former horse ranch amid the sprawling pastures of the Bitterroot Valley.
The institute was selected due to its reputation for training Karelian bear dogs.
“She’s awesome,” said Cowan, who just began training Gracie to herd a flock of domestic sheep on loan from a shepherd in the Bitterroot Valley. “Border collies are known for being very trainable and very smart, and she is a tribute to her breed.”
She said this is the first time the institute has trained a dog to herd wild mountain goats, but given the trainers’ backgrounds in preparing dogs to confront grizzlies, she isn’t too worried.
“That has a much higher risk, so when we were approached to do this, we felt pretty darn confident taking it on.”
Gracie’s first few weeks of training have focused on basic commands and getting her ready to assume her other role as an “ambassador,” accompanying Biel for education and outreach programs among the throngs of visitors flooding the park during the busy tourist season.
Having mastered the ability to remain calm around crowds, the collie is now learning herding-specific skills — responding to verbal commands to tack left or right of an animal, to instantly lie down in case the animal starts moving away too quickly and to return immediately to her handler if the situation becomes dangerous.
“She’s got to be able to do that whether she’s in front of the handler or 50 feet away,” Cowan explained. “The most critical thing is for her to be able to perform those commands during a high-stress situation when she’s actively working.”
Toward the end of Gracie’s stay, she’ll reunite with her owner at the Wind River Bear Institute for the final week or so of training. If all goes as planned, she could start working in the park as soon as July.
Biel said he’s looking forward to reuniting with his 2-year-old dog, noting with a chuckle that he has more pictures of her in his phone than many parents have of their children.
“She’s a pretty photogenic little critter, so one of the things we’ll do is just walk around and say, ‘Hi,’” he said. “I’m looking forward to it, to getting the message out on how we can safely view and interact with wildlife.”
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A woman photographs goats along the Hidden Lake Trail in Glacier National Park. (Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News)