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Seeing Wyoming Rangelands through a South American Lens and Vice Versa

Written by Indy Burke

As you read this, I will be tramping through rangelands in the southwestern corner of South America: Chilean Tierra del Fuego. The last two years, I have visited southern South America with students and professors through the University of Wyoming Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. We are the grateful beneficiaries of private gifts that support international travel and send our Wyoming students to far-flung locales. We spend the fall semester teaching students about rangelands in Wyoming and around the world. Then, during our winter break, we go to South America to learn about land management in landscapes that look very much like Wyoming: windswept, cold, shrub-dominated rangelands managed for livestock production with tall, snow-covered peaks in the distance. Our host ranchers, like those in Wyoming, are focused on maintaining their working landscapes through years of drought and low prices, with an eye toward keeping their families on the land for generations to come.

During our visit, students explore where Wyoming and Tierra del Fuego differ but also where they converge in spite of the distance between them. Sheep are more common in Tierra del Fuego than in Wyoming, largely due to tradition and because access to markets in China and the European Union favors sheep. Sheep ranchers in Tierra del Fuego face similar challenges to those in Wyoming: predators in the form of mountain lions and wild dogs, diseases like brucellosis, low prices, long winters, drought and invasive weeds that outcompete the palatable forage plants. Good working dogs – for herding and protection – are equally prized. Like here, Chilean ranchers compete with protected native herbivores and birds, genetically very different from our wildlife but similarly challenging to livestock owners. We learn about how South American ranchers are using artificial insemination and crossbreeding to optimize the hardiness of the breeds and the fineness of wool. They use techniques such as large-scale rotational grazing and adaptive management to maximize income and steward the resources. Like Wyoming, ranchers in Tierra del Fuego know one another in spite of the miles of unpaved roads between them.

Like their physical environments, the ranching cultures of Wyoming and southern South America are remarkably similar and rich. Livestock management started with European immigration in both places. In South America, there are gauchos rather than cowboys riding the rangelands – with all the same picturesque romance and attractive and popular garb that tourists and foreigners affect.

In recent years, there have been major changes in ranching on both continents. Maintaining herders and other ranch workers in Tierra del Fuego is difficult and much of the conversation circulates around how to keep young people on the ranch, very much like Wyoming. This is a tough climate with considerably less access to amenities than even our most remote places in Wyoming. Ranchers are concerned with diversifying their income, much as ours are. Near the Andes, recreational interests dominate, and businesses attract tourists for fishing, skiing, wildlife photography and other recreational interests.

There are some important differences, as well. For instance, there is very little public land in Tierra del Fuego, so there are no leases or politics surrounding those issues. All of the herders and other ranch help are domestic, with no influx of international labor or policies controlling such. Small ranches are gradually being bought by larger ranches, which increasingly are owned by distant wealthy families, and because of economies of scale, these changes tend to drive out the smaller family ranches.

Our travels place Wyoming rangelands in perspective. Our students learn that Wyoming is not so windy after all, certainly not compared with Tierra del Fuego. They experience the profound frustration of ranchers who deal with federal protection of non-native predators – packs of feral domestic dogs released by urban visitors. They learn that our natural resource challenges here in Wyoming are familiar to Chileans, too. We work to maintain food production and sustain landscapes, native species and a way of life during rapid changes in technology, culture, economy and environment. In both places, policies that affect rural communities are often driven by an urban public.

Our students in the Haub School all major in both environment and natural resources and another major on campus. They are also range majors from the College of Agriculture; writers, biologists or geographers from the College of Arts and Sciences; economists from the College of Business; or joint Law-Masters in Environment students from the College of Law. Students integrate multiple perspectives during the trip and share those perspectives with one another, studying how biology, range management, economics, environment and culture all interact to influence the future of this magical land and people. It’s not learning that can happen from reading – meeting gauchos, eating mutton each day, staking down our tents in the pounding wind, shearing sheep and then touching the wool that is bound for China. Through international and interdisciplinary exposure, our students will see Wyoming through new eyes, as the place where we have tremendous opportunity to meet the challenges.

In case you wondered, while it is summer there, we won’t be particularly warm – maximum daily temperatures are likely to be in the 50s. And even if it feels too warm to be January, the wind will make it feel like home.

Indy Burke is the director of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming. She is a professor and Wyoming Excellence Chair who studies semiarid rangelands. Her faculty position is shared among the Haub School, the Botany Department and the Ecosystem Science and Management Department.