Cowboys and Nomads: A California-Mongolia Grassland Exchange

Mongolia harbors the most extensive and intact temperate grasslands anywhere in the world.

By Misty Herrin

Mongolian park ranger Amar Purev surveys the scene before him — vast arid grasslands bordered by low, rugged mountains — and feels at home. Just north of Los Angeles.

Purev and six other Mongolians are visiting California's Carrizo Plain National Monument in search of strategies that will help them better protect Toson Hulstai Nature Reserve in eastern Mongolia — a wildlife-rich grasslands preserve under threat from poaching and overgrazing, and an anchor site for the Conservancy’s new Mongolia Program.

“Establishing a preserve is an important first step, but it’s just the beginning,” explains Daniel Olstein of The Nature Conservancy, which jointly manages the 250,000 acres of Carrizo with two government agencies.

“You have to have strong partnerships and a clear plan for how you’re going to care for the land long-term,” he adds. “We’re hoping that sharing our experience with the Mongolians will give them new ideas and perspectives on saving grasslands, both for wildlife and people.”

Grasslands Under Siege Worldwide

California’s and Mongolia’s grasslands are under pressure from development and overuse — but they are not alone. Grasslands worldwide have been reduced to 50 percent of their original range.

The 200,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument is a Conservancy-protected remnant of the grasslands that once covered thousands of square miles of California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Today, the valley is largely a patchwork of agriculture and oil fields — leaving species like kit foxes and leopard lizards with precious little refuge beyond the National Monument and a few large ranches that border it.

Across California, this scenario repeats. Much of the state’s grasslands has been lost or is facing fragmentation. The majority of what remains is found on privately owned rangeland, prompting the Conservancy to seek partnerships within the ranching community.

“We’re using a mix of strategies,” says Olstein. “Some land is so biologically sensitive that it should be set aside entirely.”

“But in many cases we can work with ranchers to achieve a mutual goal — protecting grassland health. What’s good for biodiversity is often good for livestock.”

You Need to Include Everybody

Half a world away, Mongolia still harbors much of its ancient grasslands — in fact, the most extensive and intact temperate grasslands anywhere in the world.

But today this rich habitat faces mounting threats — a grim fact clearly apparent on the 70 million acre Eastern Steppe, at the heart of which lies Toson Hulstai:

  • Mining and oil operations are bringing in roads and development — fragmenting the landscape.
  • Poaching threatens many wildlife species.
  • Traditional herding practices that protected grasslands are changing; destructive methods and herd species are denuding the grasslands.
  • Climate change is impacting vegetation, precipitation and temperature — Mongolia’s temperature has risen twice as fast as the global average.

“Because land is communally owned in Mongolia, it can be difficult to regulate how people use grassland resources,” explains Purev, the sole ranger at the million-acre Toson Hulstai and one of the visiting Mongolians along with community leaders and a local herder.

“It was enlightening to see how the Conservancy includes everyone, even people who live near the Carrizo Plain,” Purev adds. “In Mongolia, planning has been top-down. I think a collaborative approach could help solve some of the challenges we face.”

“We need community support in order to enforce conservation measures, because we don’t have the resources to succeed otherwise.”

Get Them Together and Out on the Land

Olstein believes these types of learning exchanges are invaluable in achieving lasting conservation around the world — particularly when it comes to saving habitats like grasslands.

“We don’t have time to reinvent the wheel — we’re losing huge amounts of the world’s grasslands every day,” explains Olstein. “That means plants and animals are losing habitat and people are losing resources that support them and their families.”

“We can be more effective by collaborating,” he adds. “And the best way to do that is to bring people together and get them out on the land — something the Conservancy can do better than anyone else.”

Help support our continued efforts in Mongolia. Become a Member today.

(March 2008)


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