UM Signs Agreement with Institute in Bhutan

UM Professor Sarah Halvorson captured this image of the Gangla Karchung Pass during a 2019 trip to Bhutan and a challenging trek in the Himalayan Mountains.
UM President Seth Bodnar signs the MOU.
UM President Seth Bodnar signs a memorandum of understanding with the Bhutan institute.

MISSOULA – The University of Montana has renewed a memorandum of understanding with the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research in Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom in the eastern Himalayas known for its monasteries, fortresses and dramatic landscapes.

UWICER is housed in Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forests Department of Forest and Parks Service and is the country’s premier institute for forest and conservation research.

Reinforcing UM and UWICER’s mutual relationships, the memorandum confirms a formal commitment between the two organizations to work together to advance research and shared academic objectives for the next five years. It includes exchanges for faculty, researchers and students; capacity building of UWICER’s faculty; organizing joint research projects; and exchanging data, information and publications.

“Bhutan has a whole new procedure for reviewing MOUs signed with external entities. This went all the way to the top level of the Bhutanese Cabinet,” said Sarah J. Halvorson, a professor of geography in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation who was instrumental with the memorandum agreement. “That would be like our Congress or Presidential Cabinet reviewing a MOU with a university. It was a pretty involved process on the Bhutanese side. This MOU really represents a strong commitment to scientific exchange and collaboration.”

UWICER and the University have a long history of partnership, and this memorandum renews a previous five-year agreement that expired in 2016. Collaboration between UM and Bhutan began in the early 2000s.

In 2002, a UM student study-abroad program sponsored by the Environmental Studies program and accompanied by Halvorson went to Bhutan. A few years later, forestry and conservation college Professors Jill Belsky and Steve Siebert, who specialize in international conservation and development, were invited by the Bhutanese government to advise on the establishment of an institute that would eventually become UWICER. For a month in 2006, they assisted with participatory stakeholder meetings in the country, involving a diverse range of Bhutanese educators, scientists and members of the business and NGO worlds, to identify topics and pedagogy relevant to the particular path of development and conservation favored in Bhutan.

A yak with mountains in the background
A yak boldly stands in Upper Lunana Valley of northwest Bhutan. (Photo by Sarah Halvorson)

These experiences and others kicked off nearly two decades of graduate education, research, student study groups and professional connections between UM and Bhutan –arguably one of the country’s strongest connections with a United States university.

“It’s really exciting,” Halvorson said. “Several graduate students who came to UM had affiliations with UWICER. Connections with these individuals have strengthened UM faculty members’ connections with this research organization. The Bhutanese, after 10 to 20 years, have greatly enhanced their own internal capacity for wildlife, rural and environmental change and other topics related to Bhutan’s conservation concerns by these collaborations. They return to Bhutan to work as conservation leaders in their country.

“The top tiger biologist in Bhutan, for example, did his doctoral degree at UM    in wildlife biology,” she said. “He went back to Bhutan and has since started a tiger conservation center. It’s a legacy of training and trust and high level of expectations and just outstanding faculty mentorship.”

Several UM graduate students also have done field research in Bhutan. And Halvorson says the next push is to hopefully create more opportunities for undergraduate interactions and exchange.

“The partnership between UM and UWICER has been successful because it’s based on close relationships built over the years between faculty at both institutions, as well as similar values and mountain landscapes and livelihoods, which make the Bhutanese feel at home while studying at UM,” Belsky said. “In particular, both institutions are committed to identifying and supporting land uses and livelihoods that nurture both the people and the particular places of Bhutan and Montana.”

“This MOU is with UWICER, but there are other interactions going on,” Halvorson said. “The MOU helps to strengthen our collaborations, and they’re expansive in nature.”

The Bhutanese government and scientists also have sought the expertise of UM’s Wildlife Biology faculty, inviting at least six faculty members to teach research techniques and advise wildlife and fish conservation projects in Bhutan.

UM wildlife biology Professor Scott Mills, who currently serves on the scientific advisory board of the Washington, D.C.-based Bhutan Foundation, has mentored Bhutanese master’s and doctoral students studying snow leopards and tigers.

While living for six months at UWICER in 2010, Mills taught conservation biology and assembled a hands-on wildlife research training workshop that included both Bhutanese and UM wildlife biology researchers and students.

“It has been easy to build powerful Bhutan-UM teams to foster wildlife conservation,” Mills said, “because we share a deep appreciation for mountainous environments that include charismatic wildlife in remote places.”

 Bhutanese graduate students also have studied journalism and music at UM. Halvorson said the most famous folk musician in Bhutan, Goen Tshering, the vice principal and program coordinator of Bhutan’s Royal Academy of Performing Arts, did his master’s at UM in music.

Recently, UM Professor Emeritus Steve Running helped advise the country of Bhutan on climate science and how to approach analysis of the country’s vast climate science dataset.

“The national philosophy of Bhutan is to maximize gross national happiness rather than economic growth,” Running said. “I think many, maybe most, Montanans live to a similar philosophy. Few of us are getting rich, but we stay for the happiness!”

Donna Anderson, executive director of UM’s Global Engagement Office, said UM’s partnership with UWICER is a beautiful example of a long-lasting, fruitful and successful international collaboration.

“When I talk with faculty like Sarah Halvorson, it is clear that the personal connections and relationships between UM and UWICER run deep,” Anderson said. “Some of those relationships are now 20 years old and still going strong. The joint research achieved over the years is so significant to Bhutan as a country, it is no wonder the highest level of the Bhutanese government approved the continuation of this important and special relationship with UM.”


Contact: Sarah Halvorson, UM geography professor, 406-243-2793,