Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

A land without fences November 24, 2008 by Tracy Ellig • Published 11/24/08

For a decade, MSU and Mongolia have been linked

BioRegions' field camp shares pasture land with fat-tailed sheep and cashmere goats in the Darhad Valley. Photo courtesy of BioRegions International.
BioRegions' field camp shares pasture land with fat-tailed sheep and cashmere goats in the Darhad Valley. Photo courtesy of BioRegions International.


In the Darhad Valley of north-central Mongolia, nomadic herders live with little in the way of roads, electricity, medical care or contact with the outside world. The landscape is vast grasslands and soaring, snow-capped mountains, where winter temperatures average minus 22 Fahrenheit.

"If you can imagine the plains of Montana without any fence and no real roads, then you get some idea," said Kelly Pohl, a Montana State University graduate.

In 1998, Pohl, then an undergraduate in geography, was one of the first students to visit the Darhad with MSU soil science professor Cliff Montagne. That year marked the beginning of BioRegions International, an organization that Montagne and his wife Joan, founded in hopes of fostering an exchange of ideas between two parts of the world with similar climate and geography, similar bioregions.

Since then, more than 100 MSU students have traveled to the Darhad (pronounced dar-haat) over the course of 10 field seasons. They have worked to improve the lives of these nomadic people through environmental, healthcare, cultural and education projects and to learn from them, as well. It was their first taste of international travel and a time of inspiration for many of the MSU students

"It wasn't until I left Montana--where I had grown up--and saw the struggles of the Mongolians to protect their landscape that it sunk into me that conservation was something I had to do," Pohl said. "Conservation of our landscapes and our rural lifestyle is needed everywhere because it is in jeopardy everywhere."

Pohl earned a master's degree in geography from Portland State University in 2002 and now works for the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, where she is a land protection specialist.

"(Mongolia) has stayed with me for these past 10 years: that vision of an unobstructed landscape," she said. "It's something I had never seen before and may never see again."

Big sky to blue valley

Cliff Montagne was first drawn to Mongolia when he saw a slideshow of the Darhad in 1996: noble horsemen in traditional dress, vast unfenced grasslands, a culture of astonishing hospitality to strangers and a barter economy.

"I remember trembling in my boots at those images," Montagne said. "I had grown up in Montana fascinated by the nomadic culture of the Native Americans, and here before me were images that seemed to come right from the linotypes and tintypes of Montana in the late 1800s. It was amazing to me that these people existed in real time and there might be a chance to interact with them."

Over the years, Montagne has tempered his fascination with pragmatism.

"Just because they are exotic and do things in traditional ways doesn't mean we can build a fence around them and make them into a museum," he said. "They want to preserve their culture, but they also want the benefits of modernity that they see on television. We have to respect that."

BioRegions' development work is always initiated by requests from the local residents, and the organization has a number of Mongolian liaisons that assist it in making decisions. Key among them is Mishig Jigjidsuren, trained as a veterinarian during the Soviet era, who works part-time as BioRegions' Darhad Valley program director.


Eric Chaikan, a graduate of MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking Program, confers with Cliff Montagne in the field. Photo courtesy of BioRegions International.
Eric Chaikan, a graduate of MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking Program, confers with Cliff Montagne in the field. Photo courtesy of BioRegions International.

"International sustainable development works best when changes are generated at the village level by the villagers," Montagne said. "We are very careful not to push. Mishig has been invaluable in helping us work with the community to discover their desires."

Another Mongolian who has worked for the organization is Temuulen Tsagaan-Sankey, whom Montagne met in 1996 when she was serving as an interpreter for Kent Madin, the owner of Boojum Expeditions, a Bozeman-based adventure travel company. Tsagaan-Sankey had earned a degree in English and Russian and served as interpreter and logistician for Montagne when he brought the first group of MSU students to Mongolia in 1998. In her conversations with Montagne, she started to see a different path for herself.

"Cliff is the kind of person who looks at big pictures," Tsagaan-Sankey said. "When he looked at the grazing system in the Darhad, he looked at the whole social and economic system. It wasn't just an ecological issue for him. I found that very interesting."

With Montagne's help, Tsagaan-Sankey enrolled the next year in MSU's land resources and environmental sciences master's program. Over the next six years she earned a doctorate and accompanied BioRegions' trips to the Darhad for many summers.

"Both of my parents passed away a long time ago, and when I first moved to the states for my schooling, Cliff and his wife became like my parents. They filled that space in my life," she said. "Cliff has been family, friend, mentor, teacher and role model."

During her first year at MSU, she was a teaching assistant for Montagne's Soils 201 class, along with undergraduate Joel Sankey. The pair fell in love and married. They have twin boys they hope to raise in both the U.S. and Mongolia. Tsagaan-Sankey is now a research assistant professor at Idaho State University, where her husband is pursuing a doctorate in soil science, and she is working on grazing research in the Darhad Valley. She sits on the board of advisers for BioRegions.

"My husband and I have invested a lot in the Darhad Valley and would like to continue that," Tsagaan-Sankey said. "As a family we would like to be living in both cultures and working in both cultures so we can continue with the basic mission of BioRegions--to learn from each other and help each other."

The philosophy of working with the locals was part of the reason MSU land resources analysis and management graduate Patrick Lawrence, from Bellingham, Wash., was attracted to the program. He went to the Darhad in 2007 and later worked part time for BioRegions.

"Seeing the appreciation and awareness they had of their natural environment was impressive; we have some of that here, but I think we could still learn a lot from the Mongolians." --Michael Spencer

"I lived overseas growing up and have done quite a bit of traveling," Lawrence said." I've seen how some aid organizations have an authoritative attitude. Cliff's philosophy is not like that at all. He's very grassroots, bottom up and wanting to learn what they need."

Bioregions' work, which began as an ecological partnership, has expanded to programs in health, culture and education. And 12 years after his first trip to the Darhad, Montagne is still excited to return annually to the valley.

"We've learned so much from them. We've learned that it's a value judgment on our part that things need to be 'fixed,'" Montagne said. "We've learned that taking the time to understand another culture first and earn their respect as true partners enriches both sides."

Yurts, gers and yaks

BioRegions bases its work out of the small town of Renchinlhumbe, which sits on the eastern edge of the Darhad Valley and is the equivalent of a county seat in the United States.

Of the 1,100 residents who live in Renchinlhumbe (pronounced wrench-in-lum) during the spring and summer months when BioRegions' groups visit, most live in log cabins or gers, the traditional housing of Mongolian nomads--large, circular tents of felt covered with canvas that can be packed and moved. The Russian name for the structure is yurt.

Beyond Renchinlhumbe, another 9,000 people--almost exclusively family groups--live nomadically in the Darhad Valley with herds of yaks, cattle, yak-cattle crosses, horses, cashmere goats, Bactrian (two-humped) camels and fat-tailed sheep, a breed common to Mongolia. The roughly 100,000 head of livestock form the backbone of the local, barter-based economy.

In late autumn, the herding families and their stock leave the Darhad on an arduous migration over a series of mountain passes for the neighboring valley of Lake Hovsgol, where the 85-mile-long lake moderates the harsh winter climate.

The Darhad Valley itself is an ancient lake bed from the last ice age, its sediments resting under the grass that feeds the valley's herds. But in some places, to the worry of local herders, the grass is gone and sand dunes have formed.

"During the 70-some years of socialist government, grazing was administered by highly regulated collectives," Montagne said. "In 1990, those dissolved and families returned to grazing with their private herds, which have increased in size."

With more grazing, the grass and vegetative skin that covers the ancient lake bed have been nicked in some areas. The wind then blows sand into dunes that cover more grassland. In other areas, long-established dunes may be spreading.

"It wasn't until I left Montana--where I had grown up--and saw the struggles of the Mongolians to protect their landscape that it sunk into me that conservation was something I had to do." --Kelly Pohl

Austin Allen, an MSU soil and water science graduate from Travelers Rest, S.C., and Lawrence helped work on the dune problem in 2007 by creating a baseline map of their extent. The pair lived with herding families, visited with them about their grazing practices and learned their ideas on what might stop or slow the dune growth.

"They tend to graze most heavily closest to home," Allen said. "The vegetation doesn't have a chance to recover. We discussed with them that moving their animals more frequently would be better for the vegetation."

One of the lessons students learn in Mongolia is that development work takes patience. A fenced enclosure built in 2006 to illustrate how much vegetation grew when it wasn't grazed had been torn down by the time the team returned in 2007, the timber used for a different enclosure that was planted with trees.

"Working in Mongolia brings some reality to what we were doing academically at MSU," Lawrence said. "It is a lot different putting these ideas into practice in the field."

Better health brewing


The town of Renchinlhumbe in the Darhad Valley. The Khoridol Saridag Mountains are in the background. Photo courtesy of BioRegions International.
The town of Renchinlhumbe in the Darhad Valley. The Khoridol Saridag Mountains are in the background. Photo courtesy of BioRegions International.

The 10,000 Mongolians in the Darhad Valley have limited health care. Renchinlhumbe's People's Hospital, its name a holdover from the communist era, has two to three physicians, nurses and a small staff.

When Montagne first visited Renchinlhumbe, the hospital couldn't afford to stock even the most basic medicines--not even ibuprofen. BioRegions gave the hospital a $150 grant, money enough that years later, the pharmacy is financially self-sustaining.

For this and its many other projects, BioRegions has received support from the Stanley Family Foundation and the Willow Springs Foundation, family foundations with board members who live in the Gallatin Valley. Hal Stanley and Montagne skied together competitively in high school, and Kent Brodie, with the Willow Springs Foundation, has been a strong supporter of BioRegions' work.

In 2007 and 2008, the WWAMI Medical Education Program partnered with BioRegions to bring MSU pre-med and first-year medical students to the Darhad to assist a health team with basic screenings. Led by Susan Gibson from MSU's WWAMI Program and Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, the health group conducted glucose screenings for diabetes, urinalysis for kidney problems and blood pressure testing for nearly 400 residents. The Mongolians in this region are fairly healthy people, according to the data collected.

In 2008, Zach Meyers, chief resident in the Montana Family Medicine Residency program of the Billings Clinic, was the first American physician to accompany the health group. His presence fulfilled a long-standing goal of BioRegions and George Saari, the late Bozeman physician and associate director of WWAMI, to have an American physician serve as mentor to American and Mongolian medical students.

"It was an incredible experience for me," said Madeline Turner of Forsyth, the WWAMI medical student who went in 2008. "No other medical student in America can say their first patients were Mongolians."

Because of their lifestyle, the people of the Darhad face frostbite and injuries from horseback riding and working with livestock. Brucellosis and water-borne illnesses afflict the herding families as well.


An ovoo, a shamanistic and Buddhist ceremonial structure, marks a significant place in the Darhad Valley. Photo courtesy of BioRegions International.
An ovoo, a shamanistic and Buddhist ceremonial structure, marks a significant place in the Darhad Valley. Photo courtesy of BioRegions International.

"It was impressive to see one of the last migratory peoples in the world," said Turner, who earned a pre-med degree at MSU. "For a medical student, I saw some diseases--such as brucellosis--that I will likely never see in the states."

Turner was also teamed with Otgonjargal Badamsuren, a Mongolian medical student who assisted the BioRegions health group during the spring trip. Otgonjargal then came to Montana in July to observe American medical practices in Bozeman and Dillon.

"Many different groups come to Mongolia and offer help for just one year," Otgonjargal said. "We are very excited that (BioRegions) comes back year after year. It is a big help for the Darhad people."

During her visit to Montana, Otgonjargal has seen few young people as patients, whereas in Mongolia many of the sick are young people. "It gives me hope that I can help the younger people of Mongolia become healthier," she said.

"We've learned that taking the time to understand another culture first and earn their respect as true partners enriches both sides." --Cliff Montagne

Also in 2008, students with MSU Honors Program's Great Expeditions traveled to Mongolia and conducted nutrition surveys to create baseline data on the Mongolian diet and spent time getting to know the locals.

"We played with kids from the school for three hours," said Taylor Moorman, an English literature major from Glasgow, Mont., who hopes to become an international journalist. "None of us could speak the other's language, but we could go out and laugh. That was the best part of the entire trip."

In 2006, at the request of Dr. Purevsuren, the hospital director, MSU land resources and environmental sciences graduate student Loren Barber did bacteria cultures of the spring- and stream-fed waters used to make a ubiquitous local tea. She found herding families were not boiling their water long enough to kill diarrhea-causing E. coli. Eight minutes was needed as opposed to the traditional seconds or few minutes of boiling. Using sheets of muslin cloth, she created posters comparing the bacteria from a cup of fresh tea, to tea kept all day in a thermos.

"They were shocked at how much bacteria grew," said Barber, who wants to work in international environmental health. "The local doctor now carries those muslin posters around to educate the herders in the valley. That was really gratifying. They wanted that information, and we were able to deliver it."

Culture evolution

BioRegions has invested in helping the people of the Darhad preserve their culture by sponsoring an annual festival and art and literature contests for children at the local boarding school, and by giving grants to musicians and local artisans.

"In the first few years we visited, there was neither paint nor colored pencils available for the children except what we brought," Montagne said.

This year, BioRegions published a collection of art and writings from Darhad children entitled Visions of the Blue Valley.

The children's paintings struck MSU Honors Program student Michael Spencer, an architecture student from Willow Creek.

"Seeing the appreciation and awareness they had of their natural environment was impressive," Spencer said. "We have some of that here, but I think we could still learn a lot from the Mongolians."

"Through these efforts young people develop a stronger sense of place," Montagne said. "The more they appreciate where they live, the more they know their own values and strengths, the better equipped they'll be to make the right decisions about their future, especially in this era where globalization is sweeping across cultures everywhere."