Last year, when we finished our ski trip, we ended up in the tiny Darhad town of Ulaan Uul, in the haasha of a man named Tumursukh. Tumursukh is the director of the three protected areas around the Darhad Valley – Horidol Sardag Special Protected Area, which has been a park since the 1990s; and Ulaan Taiga SPA and Tengis-Shishged National Park, which were put under protection in late 2012. Together with Lake Huvsgul National Park to the east, these protected areas comprise a vast swath of territory that is now formally off-limits to mining and other forms of exploitation.
Talking to Tumursukh last year, on the heels of a scientifically successful expedition that left me nearly giddy with excitement over the wolverine population in the region, it became clear that the big story in the Darhad was not any single species, but rather the potential of these protected areas. The overlap of the largest contiguous swath of wolverine habitat in Mongolia with one of the largest protected regions was happenstance, something that I had not anticipated when I started working up in this region in 2010, but it was also a tremendous opportunity to turn a highly personal and (let’s face it, somewhat quirky) quest into a project that will help build capacity for Mongolia’s protected areas staff, and potentially serve as a flagship program to help protect an entire ecosystem.
With that in mind, I worked over the past year with BioRegions International, a small, Bozeman-based NGO with a long-standing program in Mongolia, to bring two US National Park Service employees and a conservation specialist from the Craighead Institute to Mongolia to explore the possibility of working with these protected areas over the next years – or even decades – on research, monitoring, and management. Over the course of a two-day workshop in Ulaan Uul, we exchanged lessons learned by the US National Park System over the past century; learned about the structure of the Mongolian protected areas service; got to know Tumursukh’s 32 staff and rangers; talked about methods and methodologies for research, monitoring, and data management; and worked through a planning exercise in which they shared their visions for the protected areas over the coming five years. We emerged with a list of needs and are planning next steps. The energy and the excitement were palpable. I was utterly blown away.
Much of the credit for the success of this workshop goes to BioRegions, and especially the director, Dr. Cliff Montagne of Montana State University, who has been working in Mongolia over the past 15 years and whose commitment to this country and to a holistic vision for its future have my deep respect. His student Badmaa, who just completed her master’s degree on a Fulbright scholarship at MSU, provided the best translation I’ve ever experienced, not to mention contributing her own knowledge of environmental issues in both Mongolia and Montana, and her many years of experience as a coordinator for BioRegions. The National Park Service gave approval for Kristin Legg and David Thoma to travel here in an official capacity to share their expertise on planning, monitoring, and management, and they did an amazing job. Lance Craighead, founder of the Craighead Institute and bear researcher of many years, provided essential input on long-term planning, GIS, and – of course – bears. Mishig, who was our driver and coordinator last year during the expedition and who has been the local BioRegions employee for many years, was critical to our success, not only through planning and driving, but also through introductions to key individuals – almost anyone of any importance in the Darhad is one of Mishig’s classmates, and that is a special relationship that opens a lot of doors here. We were fortunate to also be working with a Mongolian man named Tsend, whose insights into long-term organizational planning and project management will be essential as we go forward. We were also traveling with Tersh McCracken, an American obstetrician, his son Ian, a medical student, and an outstanding medical translator, Badam. While they spent most of their time working with the staff of the local hospital, their presence also went a long way towards illustrating the fact that conservationists care about communities as well as wildlife. I also deeply appreciated everyone’s enduring good humor about various situations, from being called on to judge local singing and art competitions, to unpredictable schedules, to terrible roads, to never-ending snow and biting cold, to my tendency to nearly faint every time anyone brought up the subject of childbirth (which was way too frequently.)
This trip up into the Darhad was only the first of the summer, however. I’m now in Ulaanbaatar, waiting for a border permit that will allow me to return, to put up cameras for snow leopards in the mountains where we found a track last year. I’ll be working with two of Tumursukh’s rangers to do this, and in the six weeks that the cameras remain up, I’ll return to Ulaan Uul to continue to work on monitoring and planning with the rest of his staff. I’m planning to climb Delger Khaan, the most prominent peak in the Horidol Sardag range, and hopefully do some basic surveys through Ulaan Taiga – these two ranges cover the area that we were unable to ski through last year. I’m also planning to spend a lot of time talking to the rangers about wolverines, and about how to establish protocols for collecting DNA samples every winter from here on out. I’m capable of thinking bigger than a single species, sure – but by far the most heart-warming moments of the workshop were, for me, the rangers pulling me aside, one by one, to show me photos that they’d taken, on phones or cameras, of wolverines or wolverine tracks, everywhere in the mountains around the Darhad. This is the beginning of many things, and some of them are still, and only, and always, about that amazing and inspiring animal that led me back up to those mountains in the first place.
(P.S. – I’ve given up traveling with my SLR, which is too heavy for backpacking, and the quality of photos has suffered correspondingly. Hopefully I’ll figure out how to use this new little camera more effectively in the future. For now, you get the general idea, in spite of the blurriness.)