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

Community-based conservation has become a buzzword 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 three 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.

COMMUNITY CONSERVATION: Male cheetahs in the Olkiramatian/Shompole Community Conservation Area, Kenya. (Photo: Marissa Ahlering/TNC)

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.

— Text by Marissa Ahlering, Cool Green Science Blog