KALISPELL — Gracie launched her Wildlife Working Dog career in Glacier National Park in 2016.
Today, the 4-year-old border collie counts about 17,000 followers on Instagram. Her owner, Mark Biel, 52, a National Park Service wildlife biologist and natural resources program manager in Glacier, tallies a few less.
"I have only about 20 followers on Instagram, but I'm not bitter," said Biel, smiling, during a recent interview at the small office he shares with Gracie in West Glacier.
Gracie's "bark ranger" work has focused on low-key but deft shepherding of bighorn sheep, mountain goats and white-tailed deer to reduce the animals' interactions with park visitors. She and Biel regularly draw a crowd when Gracie shoos bighorns and goats away from the vicinity of the oft-congested parking lot at the Logan Pass visitor center.
Research suggests the animals gather there for at least two reasons: swarming tourists repulse predators such as grizzly bears and mountain lions and visitors' urine, sprinkled on trails in the area, offers salt and other minerals.
Biel's work with Gracie, along with mountain goat research conducted in collaboration with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Biel's focus on "dark sky conservation," recently earned him the National Park Service's 2017 Director's Award for Professional Excellence in Natural Resource Stewardship.
Biel said he did not know whether one of those endeavors carried more weight than others with award evaluators.
"But Gracie is just front and center in a lot of ways," he said. "It's much bigger than I ever imagined."
The roots for the shepherding program can be traced to a tragic wildlife-human encounter at another national park and to Glacier's Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan.
In mid-October 2010, a large male mountain goat fatally gored a hiker in Olympic National Park. The 63-year-old victim reportedly bled to death quickly after one of the animal's sharp horns apparently severed an artery in the man's leg.
The attack at Olympic National Park occurred in an area of high visitor use where mountain goats had become habituated to humans.
The event spiked already mounting concerns in Glacier National Park about increasing contact between human visitors and mountain goats, as well as bighorn sheep, especially in the vicinity of Logan Pass.
"There were more and more human and wildlife encounters as visitation (to Glacier) increased," Biel said.
Biel said mountain goat horns are as sharp as knitting needles. "They are an incredible weapon," he said.
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Some six years later, Gracie got to work.
Following specialized training at the Wind River Bear Institute, training funded by the Glacier National Park Conservancy, Gracie began working to move mountain goats and bighorn sheep away from the visitor center and its parking lot.
Biel had hatched the idea of training Gracie to shepherd wildlife. He, his wife, Alice, and their daughter have owned Gracie for about four years.
Gracie doesn't chase the animals, which seem to view her as a potential canine predator.
"Sometimes it just takes getting her out of the car," Biel said. "She gives them that border collie stare and they're gone."
The animals don't flee very far, which pleases visitors and photographers who've come to expect encountering goats and sheep at Logan Pass. People can still see the animals, Biel said, but from a distance that is safe for people and wildlife.
Gracie's work provides Biel an opening to educate visitors about appropriate interactions with wildlife.
He and Gracie travel periodically to Bowman Lake, where deer sometimes venture into the campground to steal shirts "and other sweaty stuff" for the salt deposited there.
"Working in Yellowstone, I never saw wildlife as salt-driven as it is here," Biel said.
Jeff Mow, superintendent of Glacier National Park, said the wildlife shepherding program has exceeded all expectations.
"Mark and Gracie have become front-line ambassadors for Glacier and the National Park Service in keeping visitors and the animals of the park safe," he said.
In November, Biel will mark 25 years with the National Park Service. Before coming to Glacier in 2010, he had worked at sites that included Devils Tower National Monument, Padre Island National Seashore, Bryce Canyon National Park and Yellowstone.
"I decided early on that I didn't want to wear a coat and tie," he said.
Gracie lounged nearby, clad in her work vest, poised to help keep wildlife wild.