Birds and beef: Audubon Society forges unique partnership with ranchers to conserve grasslands
The National Audubon Society is taking a market-based approach to conservation. Its “bird-friendly beef” certification program proposes to measure ecosystem health by using birds as a metric.
On the DoubleP Ranch in northeastern Oklahoma, Eric Perner was looking for ways to preserve habitat for his favorite grassland bird, the Northern Bobwhite Quail.
“When I grew up as a kid on our ranch, we had plentiful numbers of bobwhite quail,” Perner said. “I've just seen those numbers decimated over the years, and these trends continue.”
The quail, like many grassland birds, has dwindled as native grasslands disappear at an alarming rate. But Perner, who has been a full-time cattle rancher for nearly a decade, found a unique way to help preserve the small quail through a National Audubon Society program.
The Audubon Society is partnering up with cattle ranchers across the country, including in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas in an effort to conserve grasslands and save birds. The nonprofit’s program, called the Conservation Ranching Initiative, incentivizes ranchers to maintain a habitat fit for birds by offering its “bird-friendly beef” seal of approval.
“The idea is to use a certification seal in the marketplace to empower conscientious consumers to incentivize grassland conservation,” said Christopher Wilson, director of the initiative.
Grassland plow-up across the Great Plains has made way for urban, oil and gas development, but especially for row crop agriculture. From 2018 to 2019, a report from the World Wildlife Fund found an estimated 2.6 million acres of grassland were plowed primarily for row crops — an area larger than the Yellowstone National Park.
“The major thing driving grassland bird declines, so far as we can tell, is the loss of habitat,” said Courtney Duchardt, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University whose research focuses on the management of rangeland ecosystems. “So much of the Great Plains has been converted to row crop agriculture, and that does not provide habitat for most of our bird species.”
Great Plains and Regenerative Agriculture
Grassland bird populations have declined by 53% in the past 50 years, according to a study published in the journal “Science.”
Left alone, the native grasslands are high-functioning ecosystems. The plants are dry and brittle for most of the year, but colorful in the spring with a sprinkle of pink, orange, and yellow wildflowers. Not so apparent, grassland roots work hard underground. Plummeting 10 feet deep or more, their roots store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to a study from the University of California – Davis, grasslands could be more reliable carbon sinks than forests in a warming climate.
Duchardt explained that using regenerative grazing practices, such as livestock to manage land, is a tool that can also be used to improve land. “There are nutrients coming out of the cows from one end and going back into the soil,” she said. "The nutrients improve the soil, and the plants that grow there can also help to store carbon in their roots.”
While the term “regenerative agriculture” might be new for some people, common practices associated with the method aren’t. Once called the Great American Desert, the Great Plains has a long history of erasure — first Native people, and then the grasslands. Before the use of cattle, Native American communities would move bison herds to specific areas to regenerate the land. They would also patch-burn grasslands to regrow grass and attract animals to hunt. These small controlled burns would increase plant diversity and reduce invasive plants.
With the help of in-house scientists, the Audubon’s strategy is to work one-on-one with cattle ranchers and build out habitat management plans unique to their land. By using cattle to imitate the movement of bison herds, each plan aims to help ranchers improve the soil, water and plant conditions fit for grassland birds to thrive.
“Grassland bird communities, it turns out, don't all like big tall grass,” Wilson said. “They actually have diverse requirements for what their individual optimal habitat is.”
He explained that Audubon scientists conduct bird surveys at every enrolled ranch using the Bird Friendliness Index. The monitoring tool, developed by Audubon’s science team, measures the overall abundance, diversity and resilience of a bird community on the ranchland. There are currently more than 130 ranches that have enrolled to earn the “Audubon-Certified” seal on their beef products.
“From a standpoint of the rancher, this program is for them because it provides a way for them to get rewarded in the marketplace, to recognize their good work,” Wilson said.
But for some ranchers, the switch to Audubon’s land management practices isn’t so easy. The process involves laying off the use of pesticides, fertilizer or halting continuous grazing and taking a more “holistic approach” to managing the land, Wilson explained.
Perner, one of three Audubon-certified ranchers in Oklahoma, has had his ranch enrolled in the program for more than two years. He said the bird-friendly seal helps tell his buyers the story behind his business’s beef products.
“I wanted to really show the consumer that ‘Hey, this is where your food comes from. And yes, it is having a positive impact on the land and the environment around it,” Perner said.
He also runs a regenerative agriculture direct-to-consumer business called REP Provisions. Making the decision to partner with Audubon wasn’t difficult, Perner said. He’s grateful for the network of scientists he’s able to tap into to help grow forage for his cattle and maintain a bird-friendly habitat on his ranch. He also said joining the program has allowed him to expand his consumer base.
“They have a large network, so they can help me get the word out to consumers,” Perner said. “The fact is, if I can't sell my product, it doesn't mean squat. Because I still have to make a living at the end of the day.”
Perner said he knows making the shift to regenerative agriculture practices for other ranchers could be a hard sell. But he hopes to continue the conversation with his neighbors by talking about the Conservation Ranching Initiative.
“It’s a wait-and-see approach,” Perner said. “It'll take me a little bit of time. But when I do, I think I'll get more interest in people wanting to shift how they ranch.”
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM