Until a few hundred years ago, two large herbivorous mammals reigned in the vast and vibrant Argentine Patagonia. The guanaco, with its numerous troops, characterized the most arid areas, occupying the entire steppe from the limits of the Andean-Patagonian forest to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The huemul, less visible and of smaller groups, occupied the western portion of the steppe and the wooded slopes and high grasslands of the Andes. This lively Patagonia would soon face the arrival of the colonizers, with catastrophic results for many native species.
The huemul, one of the two native deer of our Patagonia, was distributed in Argentina from southern Mendoza to Santa Cruz, where it occupied the Andean forests and also the Patagonian steppes. In fact, travelers and naturalists recorded in their diaries the presence of huemules in steppe and canyon areas up to about 100 kilometers from the edge of the forest. In the province of Santa Cruz alone, between 1894 and 1908, at least five different authors observed small groups of huemules in canyon areas, including the Cañada del Deseado east of Perito Moreno. But already in those times, the natives of the region reported that the huemules in the steppe were not as abundant as they used to be. The huemul was one of the first victims of the colonization of Patagonia.
Huemules currently inhabit only 30% of the area they occupied some 100 years ago. This severe decline in its distribution is reflected in the catastrophic decrease in the number of individuals. It is estimated that less than 600 animals persist in Argentina. Poaching, destruction of their habitat, harassment by dogs and possible transmission of common diseases in cattle and European deer are among the factors that have decimated huemul throughout its range of distribution. The huemul drama in Argentina continues even within national parks, where small populations continue to decline and disappear, especially in Río Negro and Neuquén.
Currently, the most important populations of huemules in Argentina are found in Santa Cruz, specifically in protected areas such as the Perito Moreno and Los Glaciares National Parks and in the surroundings of the lakes of Desierto and San Martín. Perhaps the vision of the Governor Juan Gregores, who prohibited the hunting of the huemul during his mandate (1932-1945), partially allowed the survival of the specimens that today inhabit the province. But huemules continue to decline and their extinction in the medium term is likely. And just as Corrientes is called to be a pioneer in the recovery of the yaguareté populations, Santa Cruz will soon be recognized for its innovative actions aimed at preventing the disappearance of the huemul.
Patagonia Park is a complex of public and private reserves located in the northwest of Santa Cruz. The area is characterized by the presence of plateaus furrowed by imposing canyons, which historically housed populations of huemules. Due to its reserve status, its extension and the good condition of its grasslands, the park presents a unique opportunity for the return of the huemul to the steppe. The reintroduction of individuals will be the beginning of an ambitious project that seeks to reverse the extinction process by creating new population centers in areas where the huemul disappeared less than 150 years ago. In this way, the steppe will recover one of its large herbivores, in the canyons of the Pinturas River the imposing figure of this Patagonian deer will be observed again and the Santa Cruz people will offer a formidable response to the extinction crisis that plagues the planet.