Marissa Ahlering is the prairie ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Community-based conservation has become a buzz word in conservation. Basically, it involves empowering entire communities to take control of the sustainable use and protection of their natural resources. The idea is that the people who rely on the natural resources for their livelihood should have the most interest in their protection.

Community conservation projects have begun in many developing countries out of the recognition that biological conservation has to include people. But could it be successful in North America? This is a question I have found myself contemplating as I begin my role as the prairie ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota — after having spent time observing a very successful community conservation project half a world away.

For the past 3 years, I have been studying a group of savanna elephants that recolonized communally owned land in southern Kenya. In this region, elephants are increasingly using areas outside of parks, a trend that increases the potential for conflicts, such as crop destruction and human deaths.

My work focused on understanding the dynamics of the elephants living among the Maasai, who are pastoralists. During this time I learned a lot about the dynamics of elephants, but I learned even more from the Maasai about the effectiveness of community-based conservation.

Here’s how it works. With some help from a Kenyan conservation organization, the African Conservation Centre, the Maasai in this area have established a community zoning plan. They designated three zones within the community: the agriculture zone, the communal grazing zone and a community conservation zone. The community conservation zone functions similar to a grass bank. They only graze it in times of severe drought. The rest of the time it is left for wildlife.

The wildlife response to the conservation zone has been amazing. The entire suite of large carnivores is present on the site: lion, spotted hyena, striped hyena, leopard, African wild dogs and cheetah. The diversity of herbivores is incredible, from kudu and eland to oryx and giraffe, and a resident elephant population has been established.

While the wildlife obviously benefit from the increase in resource availability, the Maasai have also benefited by buffering the droughts with a grass reserve and by an increase in tourism from the resurgence of wildlife.

As pastoralists on communal land, the Maasai have a strong sense of community and a strong connection to the land. Therefore, community-based conservation was a relatively natural concept for them to embrace. But I struggle with how this model would work in North America.

Two vital components to the process are 1) a sense of community and 2) connection to the land. In many places in the United States, one or both of these components have been lost. Can these connections be rebuilt, and if so, what would a community-based conservation model look like in North America?

Of all North American ecosystems, grasslands could benefit immensely from a community-based conservation model similar to the Maasai.

U.S. ranchers often have a difficult time supporting their cattle and turning a profit without grazing the land hard and searching for grazing leases on other properties. Working as a community with neighbors to create large expanses of grass available for everyone’s cows would allow the grass to be managed at a larger scale — providing more forage overall and better quality habitat for grassland wildlife at the same time.

But this type of land-management change is challenging for people because it means relinquishing complete control and requires trust of and commitment to others. In the United States and Canada, a handful of projects have started community grazing programs, and results have been extremely positive.

Perhaps in North America, where even our decisions at the grocery store have impacts far beyond our borders, our sense of community and our connection to the land need to start local and extend to a larger scale. We live in a world of increasingly global conservation problems, such as air pollution and climate change, but I think it is still worth struggling to rebuild our connections to community and the land.

Although it is a region and ecosystem historically neglected by the conservation world, the grasslands and the plains are model systems for testing the possibilities and opportunities for rebuilding land and community connections for conservation.

(Image 1: A male elephant in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Credit: Marissa Ahlering/TNC. Image 2: Male cheetahs in the Olkiramatian/Shompole Community Conservation Area, Kenya. Credit: Marissa Ahlering/TNC.)

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  1. I, too, wonder how such a model would look in North America. I’ve just recently did a volunteer internship with Soysambu Conservancy in Nakuru and was able to see how wildlife and livestock are managed together. Having an interest in CBNRM I haven’t read through hardly enough journal articles to see how it works in various ways especially outside of Africa (I’ve just recently graduated and desire to go to grad school in human dimensions). I also agree with you that a model is best implemented in the Plains region that can follow range practices in Kenya and other countries. I do feel however that the level of trust here in the US is lesser than what you would see in communities who have a “dependent on each other” mindset versus independent.

  2. Can Community Conservation work in the USA? That is a very good question and the answer depends greatly on a number of factors; local values, what the local economy is based on, what people are willing to change about their lives, what options they are willing to explore, and how to translate these things into an affordable, real-world plan that can be acted upon. Given that the answers to those and other questions are positive, then yes, I think it can work.

    How to manifest a Community Conservation project in the face of climate changes is extremely difficult. I recently read a paper in Bioscience by W. Carter Johnson (et al. 2010), looking at models of prairie wetland complexes in a changing climate. The summary of this reading is that the over-all area of wetlands in the northern Midwest will not only shrink, but will change character tremendously. If we accept this assumption as being true, what can local communities do? Yes, it is good for all of us to change our consumer habits, but in a case like this, changing the amount of GHGs that the towns in question produce is not enough to make any difference due to the vast quantities of GHGs produced by the rest of the world.

    The paper suggests that changing farming practices may mitigate the effects of climate change on wetlands, but that, no-matter what, breeding waterfowl habitat will be changed to a degree where it will significantly affect the reproductive success of waterfowl in that area. Clearly waterfowl habitat changing is only skim on the milk, but it is an indicator of the vastness of the changes expected to take place.

    This means that any Community Conservation project the towns engage in absolutely cannot be aimed at trying to keep the environment as it currently is. To do so, while everything else about the environment is changing, would be unfeasible. The Community Conservation plan would have to take into account the range of potential future environments and find a way to work with those “final” states.

    This approach is difficult in the socio-economic-political world we have built over the last few thousand years, as we are no-longer as prepared for or accepting of change as our distant ancestors were. In a sense we must be willing to re-adopt the nomadic approach to relating to the world, only in this case the world is moving around us, rather than us moving over the world.

  3. I have just returned from seeing the documentary film The Great Dance, which portrays the lives of Koi San trackers in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa. The message is clear: the Koi San need freedom of movement in order to sustain their livelihoods. Their ability to hunt to feed their hungry children is obstructed by government laws which prohibit hunting in nature reserves- places that have been the Koi San people’s ancestral lands for 30,000 years. Furthermore, private land ownership has carved former communally-owned land into fragments bounded by fences that block wildlife migrations.

    The Koi San would benefit greatly from a community conservation movement that gave them, if not ownership over, the power to manage lands they depend on for survival. I agree with Ahlering’s statement, “the people who rely on the natural resources for their livelihood should have the most interest in their protection.” To this I might add, “should have the most interest and input in their protection.” Looking at the example of community conservation among the Maasai in Kenya, it is fairly easy to fathom how a cohesive group living on communally-owned land, and deeply connected to the land’s natural processes, could agree upon a management plan that is beneficial to plants, animals, and the community.

    But how can we implement successful community conservation in the US, where land is divided among private home-owners, corporations, and governments? In many places in the US, communities are in constant flux- newcomers appearing, others emigrating- with no cohesive cultural/ethnic group that has lived on the same land for 30,000 years. Is it possible to foster a strong sense of place and a strong impetus to conserve one’s place among people who are transient, insular, or disconnected from their community? I think it is possible, but it takes effort. Our sense of place does not naturally arise through the fabric of social processes anymore. It has to be deliberately nurtured.

    To initiate a successful community conservation movement, I think we need to support initiatives that build people’s sense of community, their knowledge of local ecological processes, and their personal connection to the land. Place-based education and community engagement may be a good starting point.

  4. As Director of Community Conservation, based in Gays Mills, Wisconsin I think it is important to point out that not only is community conservation possible in North America, but we have been carrying out community conservation programs in southern Wisconsin since 1992 and have established community groups in five projects protecting bald eagles, migratory warblers, prairies, forests and rivers. For more information please visit our website ( For community conservation activists, the website also features a short course of 8 presentations on how to catalyze successful community conservation projects.

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