Mongolian officials tour western U.S. to learn wildlife-friendly ways to counter the impacts of fences, roads, and railways

BOZEMAN (April 9, 2013) -- In a classic example of East meets West, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has arranged for a Mongolian delegation of government officials, environmental planners and others to tour sites in Montana and New Mexico to exchange information and expertise on reducing the impacts that roads, railways, and fencing have on wildlife.

Development is on the rise in Mongolia and bringing changes to the landscape such as more roads, railways, and fencing (collectively termed linear infrastructure). These changes can fragment wildlife habitat and disrupt the migrations of iconic Mongolian species such as saiga antelope, Mongolian gazelles, and khulan.

The delegation is learning how some regions of the U.S. are solving that problem by building overpasses and underpasses that run over and under highways, enabling North American wildlife, including pronghorn, moose, and elk to safely cross. These “safe passages” protect motorists and conserve critical wildlife migration corridors.

The tour group will visit sites and attend presentations by key American contractors and institutions, such as the Western Transportation Institute-Montana State University, to learn best practices of ecology and transportation infrastructure, and to see examples of the safe passages at work.

Sites scheduled for visits include U.S. Highway 93 in Montana within the Flathead Indian Reservation, which has 41 wildlife crossing structures used by bear, elk, moose and other species, and Abo Canyon’s Railway Underpass in New Mexico, which has wildlife friendly fencing along the rail corridor, exit ramps for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and other species, and an extensive wildlife underpass.

Among the tour attendees are Deputy Minister Buya Tulga, and senior staff for Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Green Development and Deputy Minister Khabshai Yerjan of the Ministry of Roads and Transportation.

“The establishment of the Ulaanbaatar-Beijing railway system bisects the migration routes of many unique species in Mongolia and China,” said Lkhagvasuren Badamgav of the Mongolian Academy of Science. “Urgent measures are needed to restore connectivity for this wildlife and avoid creating similar barriers in large ongoing infrastructure projects of Mongolia."
Also attending the tour are senior environmental staff from extractive industries in Mongolia.

“There is significant development happening in the Gobi Desert and Eastern Steppe of Mongolia, and there will be impacts from that development,” said tour leader and WCS Mongolia Program Manager, Kina Murphy. “Our goal is to equip the relevant ministries and private sector of Mongolia with the capacity to make informed decisions about measures that can mitigate impacts of linear infrastructure caused by mining and other industries.”

The trip participants will be given tools on how to plan wildlife underpasses and access to experts to assist with pending road and railway planning in Mongolia. These experts include representatives from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Montana Department of Transportation, The Western Transportation Institute, University of New Mexico, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Craighead Institute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tijeras Canyon Safe Passage Coalition, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, and New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

“Having recently visited Mongolia, it is apparent to me that although the species are different in our two countries, the desert and montane landscapes are similar and the techniques to maintain connectivity for wide-ranging wildlife across linear infrastructure will be comparable,” said Rob Ament, Road Ecology Program Manager at the Western Transportation Institute.

The tour group will attend a post-tour workshop in Mongolia at the end of April. Two participants from the Mongolian government will then return to the United States in mid-summer for the 2013 International Conference on Ecology and Transportation.

The Trust for Mutual Understanding (TMU) provided critical support for scientists and conservation practitioners from the United States and Mongolia to take part in the tour. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Mongolian Ministry of Environment and Green Development, and Oyu Tolgoi LLC have provided additional support to this project’s efforts to advance government and private sector commitments to mitigate development impacts on wildlife in Mongolia.

For more information on this story, or to talk with the scientists involved, please contact Scott Smith at 718-220-3698.