The Pantanal region of South America might seem, at first, to share few similarities with the Northern Great Plains (NGP) region of North America. Here in the NGP, we receive between 10 to 20 inches of precipitation annually, have plant communities largely dominated by cool-season grasses and low-lying shrubs, and experience harsh winters during which biodiversity is difficult to discern. In the Pantanal, a region receiving 40 to 55 inches of precipitation each year, biomes are diverse and include temperate rainforests, vast seasonal wetlands, and Cerrado (tropical savannas). This single region holds over 3% of the earth’s wetlands.
In the NGP, many small, grassland-nesting songbirds provide the choral backdrop to the relatively brief, but brilliantly colorful, growing season, and native ungulates such as elk, pronghorn, and mule deer are often found in areas where grasslands have avoided the plow. In the Pantanal, widely regarded as one of the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems, huge, vibrant parrots and monkeys can be seen throughout the vast forest canopies, giant otters, anacondas, and caiman patrol the many large rivers draining the region, and jaguars still dominate as the region’s apex predator. The NGP has the most cattle operations that raise beef by grazing native rangelands during the growing season and supplementing with feed – usually purchased hay – in the winter. As with the Pantanal, Pantaneiros (cowboys) still drive large herds of predominantly humped cattle, tracking the wetland areas shifting boundaries in response to the rainy season.
As a biologist working with ranch communities on landscape conservation in the NGP, I found myself visiting the Pantanal in June 2022 with Natural Habitat Adventures and was able to witness how landscape conservation is pursued in the Pantanal. I found the similarities in our two settings to be nearly as striking as the differences.
The two regions are predominantly private land, with the leading land use being beef cattle production. Additionally, these regions are relatively intact and have avoided conversion to cropland. In the NGP, this is due to the harsh climate and relatively low production potential which is much more suited to grazing than to growing commodity crops. In the Pantanal, the combination of region-wide seasonal flooding and extremely dense vegetation make clear-cutting and land-leveling costly and difficult. Both the NGP and the Pantanal have remained intact due to climactic and environmental conditions making it difficult to farm, and now both are important beef production and wildlife conservation regions.
In the NGP and Pantanal, wildlife conservation strategies heavily involve relationship-building and collaboration with ranching communities. The Sage Grouse Initiative, led by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in collaboration with many other partners and landowners, is one of many recent efforts that brought ranchers and wildlife conservationists together to focus on common goals for a threatened bird species. The greater sage-grouse was a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act from 2010 to 2015. For both sage-grouse and cattle, functioning grassland ecosystems and wet meadows that provide actively growing vegetation throughout much of the year are beneficial. That initiative, paralleled by many local efforts to increase ranch viability, saw ranchers and biologists working together to bring resources to the ground for the improvement of habitat and rural livelihood.
A Local Focus
In the Pantanal, the Instituto Arara Azul has spent 30 years working with local landowners and other partners to bring the hyacinth macaw back from the brink of extinction. Owing to habitat loss and animal trafficking, fewer than 3,000 animals were estimated to remain in the wild in the 1980s. Today, that population has exceeded 6,000, with a majority residing in the Pantanal.
Dr. Neiva Guedes, conservation biologist and president of Instituto Arara Azul, has worked with ranchers for over 30 years to reach these accomplishments. “The Instituto Arara Azul works with the farmers (owners and employees) of the farms, since the beginning of the project, more than 30 years ago. First, because it is important to involve them in the conservation, taking acquired information about the species and their environments, as well as making them aware, for the maintenance of the environment and the relations between the species as a whole.”
Both the sage-grouse and hyacinth macaw still face many challenges on their path to recovery but working locally with the ranchers and land managers has resulted in a stable upward trend for these populations, one expected to continue while diverse grassland habitats and ecotourism remain important for ranching operations.
Moving Forward with Conservation and Communities in Mind
There are countless other examples of grassroots, locally driven conservation in both regions that have resulted in sustainably managed landscapes producing both food for humans and habitat for wildlife. WWF works with groups like the Rancher’s Stewardship Alliance and Winnett ACES in Montana, which focus on ranch viability as well as wildlife conservation goals such as corridors for migratory pronghorn and elk. The jaguars of the Pantanal, hunted relentlessly for decades and threatening to livestock, are viewed in an increasingly positive light by local communities who are adopting strategies for coexistence and balancing livestock losses with revenue from ecotourism.
For conservation to be durable, and resilient to both future human interests and a changing climate, our strategies must strive for political neutrality and the pursuit of common interests. Of course, that is not always possible. But success stories such as these are hopeful examples that local interests in combination with collaborative mindsets do provide lasting benefits for wildlife habitat and human communities.
By Aaron Clausen, Senior Program Officer for the Sustainable Ranching Initiative in the Northern Great Plains (NGP) at World Wildlife Fund (WWF)