The Mongolia Connection

It seems as though drought and water scarcity are in the news on a daily basis. In fact, desertification is a growing problem throughout the world, as dryland regions become increasingly arid and more challenging to manage sustainably. For the people of Mongolia, a country that is more than 80% rangeland, land degradation is a particularly pressing problem due to increases in livestock numbers and changes to livestock management systems that occurred after the transition from communism to democracy in the early 1990s.

Mongolia is heavily reliant on pastoralism – over a third of the country’s workforce is engaged in the livestock sector – so the sustainability of rangeland ecosystems is a critical social and economic issue.

Yet many studies have called the long-term sustainability of Mongolian rangelands into question. Recent estimates suggest that 70% of Mongolia’s rangelands are in some way “degraded” such that livestock production is limited and other ecosystem services such as clean air, fresh water, and biodiversity may be in decline. The causes of perceived degradation, however, remain controversial, as well as how Mongolia should respond. 

It was because of this controversy that Green Gold Mongolia, a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) supported by the Swiss Development Corp. invited the Jornada in 2006 to help them develop a system of measurement, interpretation, and responses to understand and combat rangeland degradation.

Mongolia Learns From Our Past

It was a natural fit. The Jornada has over 100 years of experience in rangeland research and management that has helped establish sustainable management practices in arid Southwestern US rangelands. The Jornada has also contributed to scientific understanding, monitoring techniques, and interpretive tools that are used throughout the world. Because Mongolia faces similar conditions of aridity as the Jornada’s New Mexico experimental area, Jornada scientists knew that they could contribute to the scientific infrastructure of the new democracy and learn a lot about their tools and ideas in the process.

With the efforts of Brandon Bestelmeyer, Ericha Courtright, Jeff Herrick, and Justin Van Zee, and other Jornada staff, the Jornada has worked with Green Gold Mongolia, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and several Mongolian government agencies to craft a comprehensive infrastructure to advance rangeland sustainability in Mongolia. Each piece addresses a specific need.  Repeatable and precise rangeland measurement efforts reduce controversy about what has changed in Mongolian rangelands. Database development and maintenance ensures that the data are error free, trustworthy, and available for the long-term. Ecological site descriptions and state-and-transition models, cooperatively developed with herders and local rangeland professionals, provide a diagnosis of rangeland problems and potential remedies tailored to specific land areas. Mapping of rangeland states and pasture infrastructure, using remote sensing and geographic information systems, provides the basis for developing management plans. 

Individually, each of these tasks is challenging, but to build an infrastructure linking these pieces together at a national scale is unprecedented—a testament not only to the efforts of Jornada scientists but to the continued support of the Swiss government and the energy and ingenuity of Green Gold staff. The team’s successes are impressive: a nation-wide monitoring program has been established since 2011; general state-and-transition models have been developed for most parts of the country and used to interpret rangeland measurements according to management needs; local herder cooperatives and government staff are beginning to use ecological site descriptions and maps for developing management plans.

These efforts have also put a new spin on the well-worn degradation story: while some areas are in fact significantly degraded, Mongolian researchers estimate that about 80% of the rangeland in Mongolia is recoverable within a decade if grazing is managed properly. 

Implementing management changes where they are needed, fairly, cooperatively, and effectively, is the next challenge that Mongolia faces. Implementing management changes, such as changes to the timing and duration of grazing, can require reductions of livestock numbers in certain areas, at least until recovery of key plant species occurs. This could be accomplished through programs and infrastructure to promote “off-take,” that is, the timely sale of livestock so that older animals don’t accumulate and forage isn’t wasted on the maintenance of unproductive animals year after year. Marketing programs, improved veterinary care to reduce the incidence of disease, and cooperation from important trading partners in China, Russia, and other countries will be important. The development of roads and slaughterhouses could help to facilitate trade that improves off-take as well herder income and livelihoods. In addition, the Mongolian government is discussing a fee system and environmental quality standards that could help incentivize improvements in rangeland vegetation and animal quality that, ultimately, make some livestock products more profitable.

Other environmental benefits are also anticipated, including carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, and even a potential for increased tourism.

Back on the Home Front

Jornada researchers, alongside many researchers in its parent agency the Agricultural Research Service, welcome the opportunity to contribute to USDAs mission at a global level by participating in projects that improve global food security and environmental sustainability. As our nation helps countries, such as Mongolia, become more food secure, sustainable, and economically stable, USDA and ARS also contribute to global stability and economic opportunities for Americans.

There are more tangible benefits as well. After nearly a decade of working with Mongolia and establishing programs from the ground up, Dr. Bestelmeyer and others have been able to bring back what they’ve learned to the US by improving the tools we use at home. For example, ideas originating in Mongolia will be used to revise our ecological site descriptions. As this collaboration continues, the Jornada looks forward to an interchange of ideas and technologies that help sustain rangelands at home and throughout the world.

More information about The Jornada’s work in Mongolia is available here:

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