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From the Rockies to the Caucasus: supporting sustainable management of grasslands

Korey Morgan
Office of Communication, USDA Forest Service

Two shepherds stand in front of the camera, one carrying a small sheep, with the rangeland in the background
In the country of Georgia, shepherds and cattlemen carry on a way of life that has existed for millennia. Forest Service International Programs and Forest Service experts in rangeland management are supporting Georgia’s efforts to reverse worrying trends that are threatening this way of life. Photo courtesy Regional Environmental Centre for the Caucasus.


Sheep grazing on the mountainside
Georgian rangelands have remained largely unmanaged since the collapse of the Soviet system in the early 1990s. The lack of systematic management is leading to deteriorating conditions of grasslands and user conflicts on traditional grazing lands. Photo courtesy Regional Environmental Centre for the Caucasus.


The rain falls in thin sheets and drips steadily off a shepherd’s wide brimmed hat. The animals’ legs and undersides are stained as if dipped in brown dye, and their hooves sink into the mud. Nonetheless, a seemingly endless train of bleating sheep and lowing cattle make their way up the steep mountainside. Shepherds move along both sides of the flock, scanning for signs of predators and other dangers.

In the country of Georgia, deep in the heart of the Caucasus, shepherds and cattlemen continue a way of life that has existed for millennia. Twice a year, they undertake a perilous journey, moving livestock hundreds of miles between seasonal pastures in the lowlands and high in the mountains. The open valleys and plateaus provide forage for hundreds of thousands of sheep, goats, and cattle, which whole villages rely on as a primary source of sustenance and income.

However, deteriorating ecosystems, crumbling infrastructure, and encroachment along the traditional migratory route threaten this way of life. The government of Georgia, a key U.S. partner and ally, is working to put in place a system to reverse these trends. To support this effort, Forest Service International Programs is connecting officials in Georgia with experts in the United States, who are sharing lessons from over a century of managing forests and grasslands for multiple uses.

“There has been no systematic management of grasslands in Georgia since Soviet times,” said Mariam Tevzadze, Tbilisi-based Project Coordinator for the Forest Service’s Office of International Programs. “More and more, this is leading to many problems on traditional pasturelands and conflicts along seasonal routes. The Forest Service has a lot of useful knowledge that Georgians can use to begin addressing these challenges.”

Mountain valley in the Caucasus. Wildflowers in the foreground and a mountain in the background.
Georgia lies in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains. The high plateaus and mountain valleys provide forage to hundreds of thousands of livestock. Photo courtesy Regional Environmental Centre for the Caucasus.

In a six-part learning series, Forest Service rangeland managers are sharing the methods they use every day to manage millions of acres of public land where livestock graze. Reflecting the complex and multidisciplinary nature of managing these lands, the course covered topics from plant morphology, to pasture management planning, to the legal and institutional foundations of rangeland management in the United States.

“All of the topics discussed during the sessions will aid the ministry in developing rangeland policies here in Georgia,” said Nodar Khokhashvili, Head of Agriculture Division at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in Georgia’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture. “Understanding the economic value of healthy rangelands, the effects of climate change on pastures, and how to use technology in pasture management were especially interesting and informative as we think about how to implement our own system.”

In addition to the technical subjects, the Forest Service managers are providing Georgians with something far more fundamental. They are taking a hard look at the evolution of managed grazing in the United States, discussing difficult historic and ongoing challenges such as negative perceptions of grazing among recreationists and disagreements between land managers and livestock producers.

Screenshot of a virtual meeting
Forest Service International Programs, in coordination with Regional Environmental Centre for the Caucasus and the government of Georgia, has launched a 6-part learning series to share knowledge with Georgian land managers and officials currently undertaking the monumental task of developing rangeland management systems in Georgia. Photo courtesy Forest Service International Programs.

“[The sessions] show the unvarnished history of managed grazing in the United States,” said Casey Johnson, National Grasslands Manager for the Forest Service “We are looking at many hard lessons in our history and how the U.S. has tried to address common challenges. We aren’t shying away from the more difficult conversations.”

“The Forest Service experts provided a look at how the United States put its rangeland management systems in place and important examples of how we can approach the subject,” said Khokhashvili.

For Johnson and the other rangeland managers, the project in Georgia is a rare opportunity to step back and reflect, to pause and look at longstanding challenges from the perspective of their Georgian counterparts and think about new ways of doing things.

“Regardless of who you are, where you live, or the ecological system you are in, when it comes to natural resources, there are clear parallels,” said Johnson. “Resource managers in Georgia can appreciate the challenges we face here in the United States, and we are learning from how they approach these same challenges.”

Cattleman herding cattle mounting a horse
Shepherds and cattlemen watch over livestock that whole communities rely on for sustenance and income. Photo courtesy Regional Environmental Centre for the Caucasus.

“In our efforts to help Georgian policy makers and land managers develop their own rangeland policy and practices, we get to reflect on where the Forest Service began and the struggles and successes that got us where we are today," said Zach Palm, Rangeland Management Specialist for the Bighorn National Forest.

Rangeland managers in Georgia have a difficult road ahead. They will need to establish the legal foundations for a management system and cultivate technical experts. More importantly, they will need to win buy-in from communities around the country to establish a system that strengthens the health of rangelands while supporting the people that depend on these resources for their survival.

“The American experts have shared their experience and provided us with a roadmap,” said Mariam Merabishvili, a researcher from the Agricultural University of Georgia. “However, we still need to think through number of issues and adapt methodologies for pasture management here in Georgia. This will be an enormous challenge.”

Sheep standing next to each other

“Any chance to make even a tiny positive impact at this scale, even if it is just one tenth of one percent of Georgia’s grasslands, is awe inspiring,” said Josh Voorhis, District Ranger for the Pike & San Isabel National Forest and one of the experts participating in the program.