Birds and Beef: The Audubon Society forges a unique partnership with ranchers to conserve grasslands

At DoubleP’s farm in northeastern Oklahoma, Eric Berner was looking for ways to preserve the habitat of his favorite grassland bird, the northern bobwhite quail.

“When I grew up as a kid on our farm, we had copious numbers of partridge quail,” Berner said. “I’ve just seen these numbers dwindle over the years, and these trends continue.”

Quails, like many grassland birds, have dwindled, as local pastures are disappearing at an alarming rate. But Berner, who has been a full-time rancher for nearly a decade, has found a unique way to help conserve young quail through the National Audubon Society’s program.

Since his participation in the Audubon Society’s conservation initiative, Berner said he has kept a small group of northern bobwhite quail on his farm. But he fears he will lose them if the farmer around him does not change their farming practices.

The Audubon Society is partnering with ranchers across the country, including in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas, in an effort to conserve grasslands and save birds. The nonprofit organization’s program, called the Livestock InitiativeAnd the Incentivizes livestock keepers to maintain a suitable habitat for birds by presenting the “Bird Friendly Beef” seal of approval.

“The idea is to use the seal of certification in the marketplace to empower conscious consumers to incentivize grassland conservation,” said Christopher Wilson, director of the initiative.

The plowing of grasslands across the Great Plains has given way to urban development and oil and gas, but especially to the cultivation of row crops. From 2018 to 2019, a report by the World Wildlife Fund found that an estimated 2.6 million acres of grassland were plowed primarily for row crops — an area larger than Yellowstone National Park.

“The main thing driving the decline of grassland birds, as far as we can tell, is habitat loss,” said Courtney Duchardt, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University whose research focuses on managing grassland ecosystems. “A lot of the Great Plains has been converted to row crops, and that doesn’t provide a habitat for most of our bird species.”

Great Plains and renewable agriculture

Grassland bird numbers have declined by 53% in the past 50 years, according to a study published in the journal Science.

Left alone, native grasslands are high-performance ecosystems. The plants are dry and brittle most of the year, but are colorful in spring with a splash of pink, orange, and yellow wildflowers. It is not clear that grassland roots work hard underground. As they drop 10 feet or more in depth, their roots store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to a study from the University of California-Davis, grasslands can be more reliable carbon sinks than forests in a warm climate.

Duchardt explained that using renewable grazing practices, such as livestock to manage the land, is a tool that can also be used to improve the land. “There are nutrients coming out of the cows at one end and going back into the soil,” she said. “The nutrients improve the soil, and the plants that grow there can also help store carbon in their roots.”

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology/Science, 2019

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“The bird friendship index goes beyond measuring birds,” said Christopher Wilson. “It also allows us to compare diversity across farm locations over time.”

While the term “regenerative agriculture” may be new to some people, common practices associated with this method are not. The Great Plains, formerly called the Great American Desert, has had a long history of erasure – indigenous first, then grassland. Before cattle were used, Native American communities would move herds of bison to designated areas to replenish land. They will also patch the grasslands to re-grow the grass and attract animals for hunting. These small, controlled burns will increase plant diversity and reduce invasive plants.

With the help of in-house scientists, Audubon’s strategy is to work face-to-face with ranchers and create habitat management plans unique to their lands. By using livestock to mimic the movement of bison herds, each plan aims to help ranchers improve the right soil, water and plant conditions for pasture birds to thrive.

“It turns out that not all herbivorous bird communities like large, tall grasses,” Wilson said. “They really have various requirements for what their individual home is optimal for.”

He explained that Audubon scientists conduct bird surveys on every registered farm using the Bird Friendship Index. The monitoring tool, developed by the Audubon science team, measures the overall abundance, diversity and resilience of the bird community on the Ranchand farm. There are currently more than 130 farms that are registered to receive the “Audubon-Certified” seal on their beef products.

“From a farm point of view, this program is for them because it gives them a way to get rewards in the marketplace, and to be recognized for their good work,” Wilson said.

But for some farm owners, switching to Audubon’s land management practices isn’t all that easy. Wilson explained that the process includes eliminating the use of pesticides or fertilizers or stopping continuous grazing and taking a “more holistic approach” to land management.

Rancher’s Perspective

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Cody Johnson Photography / REP . Provisions

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Rancher Eric Berner hopes to talk to neighbors about the conservation efforts. “If I can show them that it is profitable to do it my way, and I can generate interest in my product and generate better returns for the farm,” he said, “I hope to be a blueprint for other ranchers.”

Berner, one of three certified Audubon ranchers in Oklahoma, and his ranch have been registered with the program for more than two years. He said the bird-friendly seal helps tell buyers the story of his company’s beef products.

“I really wanted to show the consumer that ‘Hey, this is where your food comes from. And yes, it has a positive impact on the Earth and the environment around it,” Berner said.

He also runs a direct-to-consumer renewable agricultural company called REP Provisions. Berner said the decision to partner with Audubon was not difficult. He is grateful to the network of scientists he has been able to leverage to help grow fodder for his livestock and maintain a bird-friendly habitat on his farm. He also said that joining the program allowed him to expand his consumer base.

“They have a great network, so they can help me get the word out to consumers,” Berner said. “The truth is, if I can’t sell my product, that doesn’t mean I squat. Because I still have to earn a living at the end of the day.”

Berner said he knows that switching to the regenerative farming practices of other ranchers can be hard to sell. But he hopes to continue talking to his neighbors by talking about the livestock conservation initiative.

“It’s a wait-and-see approach,” Berner said. “It will take some time. But when I do that, I think I will get more interest in people who want to change the way they work on the farm.”

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