Round River is undertaking a landscape-scale ecological assessment for Chilean Patagonia. The objective is to identify priority areas, ecosystems and species, as well as cultural values, for conservation through the development of a Conservation Decision Support Tool for the 11 million hectare Aysén region. Such a large-scale assessment will be the first in Chilean Patagonia, and will serve local institutions, researchers, and communities to inform management decision-making into the future.
Chilean Patagonia is a region known for its incomparable beauty with a reputation as one of the last wild places on earth. This portrayal, though partly accurate, belies the reality of a landscape where human impacts and threats are pervasive. Overgrazing by livestock and human-wildlife conflict are on the rise. Resource developments including hydroelectricity, aquaculture, and mining were once held in check by the sheer remoteness of the region but now lurk impatiently in the shadows. Tourism is also skyrocketing, having increased by 20% in the previous annum as an influx of both Chilean nationals and foreigners seek adventure in the far south. Tourism could prove to be a boon for local economies but only if it is developed in such a way that it conserves, not degrades, the region’s sensitive environments – the rhetoric of sustainable ecotourism is there, but effective guidance and decisions are lagging behind.
There can be no doubt that Chilean Patagonia, in its high latitude and absolute ruggedness, exhibits characteristics that make it unique in South America and the world. Its naturally low productivity and correspondingly low population density (~1 inhabitant/km²) makes it seem a land tailor made for conservation. Among local people, positive attitudes towards conservation are reasonably common and are firmly grounded in the peoples’ love of the land. Conservation is clearly gaining momentum, highlighted by state-sponsored measures such as the Plan de Manejo de Bosque Nativo (Native Forest Management Plan) and institutionalized in the regional slogan “Aysén, Reserva de Vida” (Aysén, Reserve of Life. However, there is no overarching framework or strategic vision to guide conservation in Chilean Patagonia with the consequence that research and management tend to be carried out on a piecemeal basis. Additionally, there is poor integration of public and private lands management and limited linkages between livelihood activities and conservation initiatives. Consequently, the technical, analytical and community-based tools to achieve the conservation task at hand need to be developed for this corner of Chile.
Approximately half or 5.2 milion hectares of the Aysén region are in public lands including National Parks and Forest Reserves. A notable example in the south of Aysén is Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, the largest National Park in Chile and fourth largest in South America. However, much of Bernardo O’Higgins and other National Parks could best be described as “paper” Parks, with limited enforcement and oversight from CONAF, the government agency entrusted with the Park administration. These areas remain vulnerable to aquaculture, poaching, illegal timber harvest, and other threats. Similarly, National Forest Reserves, also managed by CONAF and comprising a large percentage of Aysén, provide no real protection nor has any prioritization been accomplished to identify lands within the reserve system most valuable for conservation.
Outside of National Parks and National Reserves, Aysén is primarily comprised of private lands in valleys and river bottoms. These private lands are highly productive and contain some of the most critical habitats for wildlife. Such low elevation habitats are underrepresented in the current National Parks network.
Private land management will be extremely important to successful long term conservation in Chilean Patagonia due to the ecological values represented in these lands, the position of these lands within the public land matrix, and the critical role local landowners play in facilitating wildlife movements and habitats. Thus, an important piece of the toolkit we are developing is building the groundwork for broad-scale conservation action in concert with private citizens and landowners.
Our proposed Assessment will identify areas within National Parks, National Reserves and privately-owned areas of particular ecological significance, and determine where corridors could be most successfully established to connect neighboring wildland areas including through private lands that provide habitat and connectivity values of regional importance.
Despite an inclination toward insularity and protectionism, leaders of Chilean institutions still recognize that outside support is critical for large-scale conservation action to be successful. With that said, an improved model for foreign cooperation and support is necessary that includes collaboration at multiple government and community levels and addresses issues of cultural and economic sustainability as well as ecological conservation.
Any regional conservation initiative in southern Chile requires CONAF be a willing and engaged partner as they administer public lands managed under National Park, National Reserve, and National Monument designations throughout the country. It is noteworthy that CONAF’s initial charter and continued area of expertise is silviculture, and CONAF employs foresters and administrative personnel, not ecologists or biologists. In spite of this, they are the de facto stewards for enormous tracts of land and water, and are held to exceedingly high standards by local communities wherever they operate.
Over the past generation CONAF has undergone a sea change, adopting a new paradigm of biological resource conservation, including soil, flora and fauna. As a result, the organization is eager to partner with entities that offer technical expertise in the areas of conservation biology, wildlife research, and landscape planning. Round River has been working in partnership with CONAF since January 2014, during which time we jointly designed and carried out a series of biological assays and ecological research initiatives. CONAF has now requested our assistance in developing a large-scale conservation plan for the Aysén region.
The geographical extent of the Ecological Assessment and Conservation Decision Support Tool (CDST) includes lands within the Aysén region of southern Chile.
A fundamental basis for the CDST will be the identification and subsequent analysis of ecological requirements, status, vulnerability, and social importance of freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems, focal species and special elements (such as unique landscape features or cultural values) within the region now and into the future. The CDST should incorporate key ecological and landscape processes that are integral to maintaining the long term integrity of the region, including climate change and associated vegetation changes as well as potential changes in human uses and in focal species habitat use and distribution.
The focal systems and species will be selected in collaboration with regional experts and partners. Below, we identify some potential targets that may represent important ecological and landscape characteristics and values for inclusion in the CDST for Chilean Patagonia:
(1) Wild rivers: The Rivers Baker and Pascua are among the most wild and stunning rivers in the world and represent ecologically intact watersheds through the heart of Aysén. Unfortunately, these invaluable characteristics have not conferred these majestic watercourses immunity from a proposed megadams project (HidroAysén) which was thwarted only by the narrowest of margins. These rivers remain vulnerable, with the dam proposals having been tabled but not nullified.
(2) Fjords ecosystems: Fjord estuary ecosystems are globally rare, and Chile’s unique coastal ecosystems are rich in marine and coastal resources. In Katalalixar National Reserve, as elsewhere, there is mounting pressure from industrial aquaculture, which threatens to displace local artisanal fishers and destroy marine habitat. Baseline data on these ecosystems is conspicuously lacking, and must be generated in order to document changes brought about by development.
(3) Ice fields-Climate change: The Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields are the largest freshwater reserves in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica. Chile is considered “highly vulnerable” to climate change, and the melting Ice Fields are on the front lines. As an institution, CONAF has fixed its gaze on scientific monitoring and ecotourism in and around the Ice Fields, but there are larger questions of ecosystem resilience and socio-cultural adaptability related to the rapid environmental changes occurring in the Ice Fields.
(4) Huemul Deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus): Huemul, a species of cervid featured on the Chilean Coat of Arms, is critically endangered and the subject of increasing conservation concern at regional and national levels. Currently, they occur in highly fragmented populations from central Chile to the Magallanes Region (far south), the most significant (global) population occurring in Aysén.
(5) Guanaco (Lama guanicoe): Guanaco are a species of wild camelid native to southern South America; they are obligates of steppe and grassland habitats, and are consequently rare in Chile. Comprising the primary prey of Puma (Puma concolor) where they occur, they may be considered a key regulator of ecosystem processes.
(6) Austral Vizcacha (Lagidium wolffsohni): These rodents of the Chinchillidae family are rock obligates, and may thus be an indicator of ecosystem health for montane and alpine environments. They are listed as an IUCN data deficient species.
(7) Native Freshwater Fish and Non-native Salmonids (Salmonidae spp.): Several species of non-native salmonids, including Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar), Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) and Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) were introduced to Chile in the first half of the 20th century for commercial and sport purposes. Impacts of these introductions include habitat degradation, disease transmission, and increased competition with and predation of native fishes resulting in 100% of native freshwater fish species being considered as threatened or endangered. This situation is complicated by important economic relationships between Salmonids and communities at both broad (i.e., industry) and fine (e.g., fishers, guides) scales.
(8) Alacalufe Communities: Historically, a considerable portion of Chilean Patagonia was occupied by the Kawésqar, or Alacalufe, a nomadic seafaring people who dominated in the coastal sphere. The appropriate approach to effectively involving Alacalufe communities in this planning will be explored.
(9) Private Landowners: Lower elevation valley and river bottom habitats are primarily in private land ownership. Many landowners have traditions of maintaining natural values including habitat and wildlife on their lands and they represent generations of local knowledge that has been poorly recognized. We will undertake focused efforts to partner with local landowners and broadly support conservation land stewardship.
The effort is in three major phases, with stand-alone deliverables anticipated for each.
Phase 1. Project Design & Information Gathering: Secure project endorsement and develop engagement strategy, study design and implementation strategy, compile existing ecological, cultural, land use and occupancy data sets; create data library, identify key information gaps and seek to fill them. Key activities and deliverables from Phase 1 are anticipated to include:
- In collaboration with CONAF organize a Chilean Patagonia Biodiversity Summit to create the Chilean Patagonia Biodiversity Alliance that includes members of conservation organizations, institutions, and landholders in the region (CONAF, Servicio Agrícola Ganadero – SAG, Comité Pro Defensa de la Fauna y Flora – CODEFF, Chilean Military, and local communities). Participants will be asked to assist in the development of an Engagement Strategy to build support from government, communities, funders and key stakeholders for the completion and implementation of the Chilean Patagonia Ecological Assessment and Conservation Decision Support Tool;
- Develop a study design to address the technical aspects required to advance Chilean Patagonia Ecological Assessment and Decision Support Tool;
- Inventory and compile existing ecological and cultural spatial and non-spatial datasets and assess the spatial extent, quality, and utility of datasets for conservation planning and management;
- Compile a data library of existing, relevant, and accessible spatial and non-spatial datasets and information; and
- Identify key information gaps and develop strategy to address gaps.
Phase 2. Baseline Assessment and Decision-Support Tool Development: Complete analyses of current conditions based upon best available information on current ecological and social values (e.g., vegetation/ecosystem classification, ecological processes, and human use and infrastructure) to provide the basis for assessing potential changes into the future due to changes in climate or human use patterns. During Phase 2 deliverables will include:
- Develop seasonal habitat models for selected species with modeling approach and resolution based on available information and resources;
- Predict current relative amount and distribution of seasonal habitats for selected species based on best available vegetation models and generalized for specific assumptions regarding key environmental and social drivers (e.g., flooding levels, rainfall conditions, human use patterns and infrastructure);
- Assess species-specific wildlife seasonal movement requirements through movement models that incorporate the best available information on historic and current movements, seasonal habitat distributions and potential barriers to movement;
- Analysis of current conditions regarding key environmental and social drivers (e.g., biodiversity levels, forest conditions, and human use patterns and infrastructure;
- Assess wildlife seasonal movement requirements through movement models that incorporate the best available information on historic and current movements and potential barriers to movement;
- Assemble data, models and supporting spatial layers into a GIS-based toolkit that allows easy viewing, manipulation and updating of the information; and
- Document assumptions, methods, results and limitations of the effort, as well as recommendations for next steps and management applications.
Phase 3. Increasing the rigor and scientific robustness of the analyses: The data compilation, synthesis and model development undertaken in Phase 2 will be used to identify critical information gaps in our ability to understand and model current and potential future habitat distributions for key wildlife species in the Delta and surrounding region. A work plan for increasing the rigor and scientific robustness of analyses will be developed near the completion of the Phase 2. Key deliverables from Phase 3 are anticipated to include:
- Incorporation of on-going field data collection efforts to increase the robustness and precision of existing vegetation modeling, utilized to test habitat and movement models for robustness in fine-scale changes in vegetation classifications;
- Apply partially or fully executed habitat models to existing predictions of vegetation conditions under climate change scenarios; this will be dependent upon availability and quality of existing data on vegetation predictions. These analyses will emphasize identifying the potential change in habitat quantity and possibly major shifts in distributions;
- Identification of priority areas, ecosystems, and species for conservation, based on a range of potential development/conservation scenarios;
- Future research and management priorities identified based on assessment of critical information gaps and immediate conservation needs; and
- Provision of decision-support tools included in the regional conservation area design identifying key areas for conservation under current and future conditions.