Grassland restoration might not sound glamorous, but it forms the foundation of rewilding Patagonia. The majority of the world's grasslands have been converted to agricultural use, causing massive habitat loss for wildlife, in particular herbivores. Rewilding begins the process of reaching a balance between human and natural uses of this ecosystem type.
Although vast and rugged, Patagonia has suffered its share of ecological abuses. Intensive sheep ranching on sandy, arid soils has resulted in widespread desertification. Like most of the region, the Chacabuco Valley has experienced rampant overgrazing, stripping grasslands and enabling a collection of exotic species to move in. As we make the transition from sheep ranch to National Park, Conservacion Patagonica aims to reverse these damages, restore productive habitat, and create a model of ecosystem restoration for Patagonia.
Shortly after purchasing Estancia Valle Chacabuco in 2004, we launched the grasslands recovery program. Eighty years of crowding sheep into the valley's fragile grasslands, poorly suited to raising livestock, had created a patchwork of invasive species, poor grass, and barren areas. We sold all but a few of the former estancia's 30,000 sheep and 3,800 cattle over four years so as not to distort the local livestock market. Virtually unprecedented in the region, removing the livestock was a crucial step toward preventing the collapse of the Patagonian ecosystem.
Over four hundred miles of fencing, the remnants of livestock pastures, crisscrossed the Chacabuco Valley, fragmenting habitat and blocking important migration corridors. Hundreds of carcasses of guanacos dangled from the barbed wire, gruesome reminders of animals who failed to jump over the fences. Volunteers from around the world have joined us in pulling out these fences—challenging but satisfying work. We recycle all salvageable materials to reuse. As of 2010, we have removed over half of the fencing, and the work continues on.
Under the direction of a restoration ecologist, our grasslands recovery project has gathered soil samples to develop management plans for different area and established research plots to test the effectiveness of reseeding and erosion control practices. Volunteer conservationists collect seeds from native grasses, especially the coiron species, for use in reseeding heavily damaged areas.
In just five years, the Chacabuco Valley has made impressive—and visible—strides towards recovery. Complete restoration will take decades, but project biologists are impressed with the speed with which grasslands have regained their vitality. Park visitors can easily see the contrast between the future park and surrounding properties, where livestock remains. Lush grasslands, no fences, and herds of guanacos galloping free epitomize the transformation we've begun.