Š2001 Patagonia Land Trust
Photos: Beth Wald
The British introduced sheep to Patagonia around 1865, and by the turn of the 20th century damage from overgrazing was already evident. Since then, carrying capacity per hectare has steadily declined. At the turn of the 21st century, sheep raising in Patagonia has become less economically viable, forcing many sheep ranchers to increase the size of their herds on already heavily overgrazed land.
Patagonia's greatest ecological curse, however, may be the source of the salvation of its wildlands. Much of Patagonia is still unpopulated and its sheep-raising lands are held in large estancias. Once sheep are removed, grassland can be given a rest and the chance to regenerate. With both sheep and fences removed, remnant wildlife populations will have access to unfragmented habitat - and the chance to survive and flourish.
Logging in Patagonia for lumber and wood chips, as well as forest clearing for ranching, has been extensive in the region's beech forests. It now threatens southern stands of lenga and ņire, particularly in Tierra del Fuego, where the forest is most abundant and economic pressures are great. In the southern latitudes, trees grow slowly and once cut, could take generations to recover - if at all. Logging threatens populations of huemul deer, puma, guanaco, southern river otter, geese and Andean condor.
Oil is found mostly on the coast, Patagonia's most biologically sensitive region. The past 25 years has seen hundreds of oil wells drilled and several petroleum loading ports built. Oil spills in coastal Patagonia's rough, high-latitude waters (the "roaring forties" and "furious fifties") are frequent and difficult to clean up. Oil development has had a deleterious effect on local wildlife: at Punta Tombo, Patagonia's largest penguin rookery, biologists attribute 10% of penguin mortality to oil fouling. Most of Patagonia's coastal towns, which have quadrupled in size, release untreated effluent into coastal waters.
The coast serves as home to abundant marine life: Magellanic penguins, southern right whales, South American sea lions, southern elephant seals and several species of cormorant. But continued life here relies entirely on the biological health of the Malvinas (Falklands) Current, whose rich stores of plankton, invertebrates and fish support mammals and birdlife. Commercial fishing activity now threatens the health of the entire food chain.