The Patagonia Parallel

Patagonia Park Conservation Director Cristián Saucedo draws connections to Montana

By Tristan Scott
Arcilio Sepulveda and Cristian Saucedo tracking a puma in the Park. Courtesy Jim Williams

Although the enduring seasonal contrast couldn’t be more pronounced, the similarities between Patagonia, Chile, and Northwest Montana run as deep as a glacial crevasse, and while their respective land and wildlife managers live poles apart, they share a staunch commitment to protecting the ecologically precious regions.

In an unlikely exchange, scientists from the disparate regions have been swapping ideas and strategies to monitor and manage the wild, pristine landscapes, which are dovetailing as the future Patagonia National Park comes to fruition.

Cristián Saucedo, an internationally known scientist and the conservation director of Conservacion Patagonica, which promotes the creation of new national parks, has been enjoying the wintertime quiet in sub-equatorial Patagonia, a remote region at the southern tip of South America, shared by Chile and Argentina.

But Saucedo transitioned to high summer this week when he visited the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park, and will kick off a free lecture series July 23 at Flathead Valley Community College. In his presentation, he will tease out the parallels between the far-apart regions and explain how Montana’s land and wildlife management strategies could be applied to Patagonia’s future national park.

One of Saucedo’s counterparts in the hinterlands is Jim Williams, a longtime biologist, wildlife manager and the supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region 1. Williams has been participating in an exchange with Saucedo, and while the two landscapes they manage contain few of the same species, the ecosystems share a history of ranching and restoration, of predators bedeviled and brought back from the brink of extinction, of research and recovery, and of national parks in creation.

In his multimedia presentation, Saucedo will highlight some of the most intriguing wildlife species on the planet, including the puma, guanaco (the llama’s close cousin), Andean condor, and huemul deer, the rarest deer on earth.

By breaking down the geographic isolation and collaborating, the scientists have an opportunity to share ideas and strategies for monitoring populations of key species, prevent human-predator issues within parks (bears and mountain lions, for example), and establish management plans to minimize the pressure of visitation on natural resources.

“Patagonia is such a remote place, with a beautiful landscape and unique wildlife species, but in general Chile does not have much experience in wildlife management in parks,” Saucedo told the Beacon. “What we can learn from the Montana experience relates to implementing wildlife management decisions and learn more about the visitor experience.”

Saucedo was astonished, for example, to learn that Glacier Park received so many visitors – upwards of 2 million people flock to the park annually – and while Patagonia sees far fewer visitors, he wants to be able to anticipate the challenges of managing those pressures as visitation increases.

“It is really impressive to see that amount of people in a national park,” he said. “In Patagonia, like in Glacier, there are very few months in the year when tourists are visiting, so it is an interesting parallel to see how visitors are managed during the season. It is an important issue and we have a long way to learn, but for sure it’s easiest to learn from real experience here.”

Williams said it’s been an honor to take part in building the future of Patagonia National Park, which he described as like “Montana’s landscape on steroids,” situated as it is between two ice caps.

“It’s like watching the creation of Yellowstone National Park,” he said.

When Williams visited Saucedo and his wife, Paula Herrera, the volunteer program coordinator for Conservacion Patagonica, he was blown away by the high levels of biodiversity in plant and animal species, the ruggedness of the inhospitable terrain, and especially the unique management style.

One of the greatest challenges in Patagonia is restoring the region’s vast expanses of grasslands, which were damaged by a century of overgrazing by sheep and cattle ranching. Although it wreaked ecological havoc, the grasslands are recovering and the wildlife is returning.

But hundreds of miles of fencing have inhibited the natural movement of the area’s keystone species, and someone has to remove it all.

Instead of park rangers, Conservacion Patagonica relies on the work of gauchos, or Spanish cowboys, who patrol the rugged landscape, which they are uniquely suited to survive in and move through.

“They are the very best wildlife managers in the field, and their capacity to be connected to the landscape is unbelievable,” Williams said.

To create Patagonia National Park, Conservacion Patagonica bought almost 200,000 acres in the ecologically precious Chacabuco Valley.

FVCC and FWP teamed up to bring Saucedo to the Flathead Valley for a community lecture series featuring wildlife across a wide spectrum of habitats and species.

The series will kick off on July 23 with Saucedo’s presentation. The entire lecture series is free and open to the public. A complete schedule of presentations is available at www.fvcc.edu, or http://fwp.mt.gov/regions/r1/.

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