Photo by David Ahrens

Mongolia, Darhad Valley

In partnership with the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas Administration, Round River conducts research in three newly formed protected areas of the taiga of northern Mongolia. Situated in the Huvsgul province, these protected areas comprise 1.5 million hectares of mountains and high-elevation boreal forest, contiguous with the vast Lake Huvsgul National Park to the east.

Students assist with multi-species carnivore monitoring in the Darhad Valley, studying fire dynamics, high-elevation wetlands, grazing impacts, permafrost distribution, and river systems. Student field crews conduct research on breeding and migratory birds, steppe and talus-dwelling pikas, large mammals, and culturally significant medicinal plants, while exploring ways to incorporate local communities and community needs into park management.

Mongolia is a beautiful vast country, with a functional democracy sandwiched between Russia to the north, and China to the south. Mongolia is the most sparsely inhabited country on earth, with an average of about 2.5 people per square mile. Over half of the population lives in or around the capital city, Ulaanbaatar (UB for short). The rest of the country is referred to as “the countryside,” where one third of Mongolians continue to make a living herding livestock.

In 2012, the Mongolian Parliament ratified two new protected areas in the mountains surrounding the Darhad Valley. The protected areas, Tengis-Shishged National Park and Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area, along with the pre-existing Horidol Saridag Strictly Protected Area, were placed under the direction of the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas Administration (UTPAA). These protected areas comprise 1.5 million hectares of high-elevation taiga contiguous with the vast Lake Huvsgul National Park to the east, and large sparsely inhabited Siberia to the north. Since 2018 Round River has assisted UTPAA in creating a center of ecological monitoring and research within this remote region of Mongolia.

Program Dates

Summer term – 6 weeks mid-June to late July

Fall semester – 12 weeks mid-August to early November

Program Costs

Semester programs:

  • $22,150 includes tuition, room and board, project research fees and equipment, ground transportation, and evacuation insurance
  • $750 Westminster University registration fee

Summer programs:

  • $11,450 includes tuition, room and board, project research fees and equipment, ground transportation, and evacuation insurance
  • $450 Westminster University registration fee

Our semester programs are just under three months long (84 days to be exact). For that duration and the 15 hours of semester credit, Round River is affordable compared to other options of shorter length and fewer credits. And every day is packed! Summer terms are exactly half the length of our full semester programs at 6 weeks (42 days) and provide 9 hours of credit. 

Students are in remote places where there aren’t a lot of options to spend money, which is a savings that can add up over the three months. Except for personal expenses, once on site, Round River takes care of most expenses including food, board, and in-country travel for the duration of the program. Federal financial aid can be used for our programs, and we offer our Edward Abbey Scholarship as well. If finances are a concern, please contact us. We’ll work with every student to explore opportunities that will allow them to get out in the field and make a difference with us.

Courses Offered

Semester (15 Semester Credits):

  • Natural History
  • Introduction to Biological Field Methods
  • Applied Conservation Biology
  • Humans and the Environment
  • Applied Ecology

Summer Term (9 Semester Credits):

  • Natural History
  • Introduction to Biological Field Methods
  • Applied Conservation Biology

Our blog provides an ongoing log and history of students’ experiences over the years.

There is no better resource to understand what a Round River Student Program is like and what to expect.

What to Expect

This program provides an incredible opportunity to experience the vast landscapes and biodiversity of Mongolia. Operating from Round River’s base camp near Ulaan Uul, students will spend their time assisting our partners in remote mountainous regions of Mongolia.

Our academics complement the field research and are designed to be interactive and hands-on. Students can expect to spend a few hours a day working on their field journals, reading and discussing relevant articles with the group, having lectures from program instructors, and working on assignments and essays. Guest lectures, when possible, will also add to students’ understanding of conservation and land-use planning in the area. Each program culminates with a final written research paper, focusing on one aspect of the project, as well as a presentation in the community.

Students can expect to spend most days conducting research in the field. Field sites in the surrounding mountains will be accessed by day-hikes or backpacking from our basecamp on the Mungosh River, or via furgon (Russian military van) if they are far away from our main base. Students should be physically and mentally prepared for backpacking and camping in wet and windy conditions, and difficult terrain. Due to the geographic location of our program, fresh fruits and vegetables are difficult to obtain and Mongolia is a culture with a heavy meat and dairy diet. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to accommodate a vegan diet on our program. Evenings will be spent at camp around a central ger (yurt) working on data entry and covering academic coursework. Around camp, students should expect to help with tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and maintaining equipment.

Round River student programs are unique, with no program being the same as the last. As our research in Mongolia will be very closely tied to our local partners, students may assist in a wide range of projects, depending on our partners’ needs. Students will learn valuable field methods, become familiar with a vast number of native species, hone field journaling techniques, and develop a very good understanding of conservation and protected areas in Mongolia.

Because of the nature of our programs, schedules will change frequently and students are expected to be flexible and adapt to constantly-evolving plans throughout the semester. This is the reality of conservation in Mongolia. Students should arrive with a positive attitude and a willingness to learn and make the most of the experience. This program challenges students both physically and mentally, yet rewards them with an incredible opportunity to explore the depths of Mongolia‘s natural and cultural landscapes.

Students will fly into Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city, and travel overland for three days to reach our basecamp. Steppe weather can be unpredictable and severe, but the mountain ranges surrounding the Darhad Valley are likely to be accessible and snow-free from June through October and our programs occur during these months.

Research Objectives

This Round River program provides numerous options for wildlife research on wolves, brown bear, lynx, manul, snow leopard, wolverine, sable, marten, otter, mink, and fox. In addition, elk, moose, roe deer, wild reindeer, argali, ibex, pika, hare, bat, and numerous rodents also inhabit the region, along with large numbers of raptors and other birds. The taimen, Mongolia’s famous 200-pound salmon, is also abundant in the Shishged and Delger watersheds within the protected areas. Few of these species have been systematically studied, and in most cases, including wolves, bears, and lynx, no one has any idea of their population status. Likewise, few people have yet studied the flora. Ecosystem processes also remain poorly understood, and fire dynamics, high elevation wetlands, grazing impacts, permafrost distribution, and river systems are among the topics that bear greater scrutiny. Gaining a baseline on all of these will be important as the protected areas move into monitoring and management in the era of global climate change.

Students may participate in any or all of the following field activities:

  • Monitoring wildlife occupancy with a camera trap grid. Students participate in field data collection and data processing and analysis.
  • Monitoring of red-listed alpine butterfly species in the genus Parnassius
  • Participating in research efforts with Mongolian Wolverine Project
  • Small mammal trapping surveys
  • Steppe and talus-dwelling pika habitat and occupancy studies
  • Monitoring of sensitive high-elevation at-risk medicinal plants such as Saussurea dorogostaiskii
  • Plant diversity surveys in the Horidol Saridag Strictly Protected Area
  • Nesting waterbird surveys in the kettle lakes of the Darhad depression
  • Cultural visits and participation in local festivals

Student Projects

Surveys of waterbirds in the Darkhad Depression, Mongolia, during summer and autumn. By Mikayla N. Call (Summer 2018 Mongolia alumna), Michael L. Schummer, Chris J. Smith, Badamgarav Dovchin, Battagtoh Tumur, Bayarkhuu Byambaa, Tumurusukh Jal & Rebecca J. Watters. Published in the journal Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Wildfowl (2019) 69: 188-205.

Summer 2023

Assessing patterns in population and growth of vansemberuu (Saussurea dorogostaiskii) in the Horidol Saridag Special Protected Area, by Suree Lor and Sophia Adami-Sampson

Using Camera Traps to Estimate Species Occupancy In the Horidol-Saridag Protected Area, by Isolina Miller

Understanding Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) Abundance and Diet in the Darhad Valley, North-Central Mongolia, by Noelle Foster

Views from the valley: local knowledge of Daurian pika (Ochotona dauurica) population decline in the Darhad Valley, by Erin Vostal

Summer 2022

Daurian pika (Ochotona daurica) in the Darhad Valley, Mongolia, by Gila Goodwin and Caton Langston

Examining the prevailing human-wildlife conflict between Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) and fisheries in Northern Mongolia, by Riley Peterson

Monitoring Vansemberuu (Saussurea Krasnoborovii) Populations in the Horidol Saridag Special Protected Area, by TJ Guercio and Ella Reilich

Using Camera Trapping to Estimate Species Occupancy Trends in the Horidol-Saridag Strictly Protected Area, Darhad Valley, Mongolia, by Gitanjali Matthes

Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) Camera Trapping in the Horidol-Saridag Strictly Protected Area, Darhad Valley, Mongolia, by Leah Thomas

Fall 2019

Assessing Siberian roe deer (Capreolus pygargus) occupancy in the Horidol-Saridag Specially Protected Area, Mongolia. By Noah Savage.

Daurian Pika. By Sophie Heny.

Elk Habitat Preference. By Rosie Hust.

Hairtai Shuu, Vansemberuu – Establishing Baseline Statistics for Saussurea Dorogostaiskii in the Horidol Saridag Special Protected Area. By Isaac Shuman.

Investigating Talus-dwelling Pika Occupancy and Hay Pile Composition in the Darhad Valley, Northern Mongolia. By Micay May and Klara Heuchert.

Summarizing Camera Trapping in the Horidol-Saridag Strictly Protected Area, Northern Mongolia. By Ilan Briggs.

Summer and fall surveys on the populations and seasonal movements of Darhad waterbirds. By Qingqing Yang.

Summer 2019

Breeding Birds of the Darhad Valley, focusing on Whooper Swans, Bar-Headed geese, and Demoiselle Cranes. By Mathew Zappa.

Butterflies of the Darhad Valley: Logging species diversity and Parnassius sp. butterfly location and behavior. By Kelsey Barber and Mathew Zappa.

Occupancy analysis of Alpine Pika (Ochotona alpina) in Horidol-Saridag Strictly Protected Area, Mongolia. By Grace Pearson and David Ahrens.

Plants of the Horidol-Saridag Strictly Protected Area, Mongolia. By Alexis Sullivan.

Small Mammal Trapping in the Darhad Valley, Mongolia. By Chyanne Smith.

Wildlife monitoring with camera trapping in Horidol-Saridag Strictly Protected Area, Mongolia. By Alyssa Christianson.


Full listing of student papers


Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Please apply early for the best chance of being accepted into the program of your choice.