Partnering with Private Land Managers
With 84 percent of central grasslands in the United States in private ownership, collaboration with ranchers and farmers is critical to conservation success. That is why Audubon works closely with private land managers, providing technical assistance as they incorporate bird-friendly practices into their operations and improve overall ecosystem health. Implementation of these best management practices enables domestic livestock to mimic the movements and pressure of historical grazers. This ensures that, like the bison of yore, grazing beef cattle improve soil health and help to create the plant diversity and structure of native prairie habitat that grassland birds prefer.
Audubon’s conservation team develops Habitat Management Plans that address site-specific habitat and bird conservation opportunities on ranches participating in one of our programs. Desired outcomes are guided by the habitat needs of a region-specific set of priority/target grassland bird species. In addition to habitat management practices, the protocols also include a standardized set of criteria related to forage consumption, animal health & welfare, and environmental sustainability. Findings from our grassland report will help Audubon prioritize engagement with ranches in grassland priority geographies to protect existing grassland strongholds and vulnerable areas. The result: more resilient and productive working lands and better habitat for birds.
Conservation Incentives and Easements
Audubon will conserve 1 million acres of critically endangered grassland and associated wetland habitat by 2022 through a matrix of strategic grassland enhancement, restoration, and protection using conservation incentives and easements. We will focus on conservation efforts to support endangered and threatened grassland-dependent species such as Greater Prairie-Chicken and Western Meadowlark, as well as wetland-dependent species such as Whooping Crane, Sandhill Crane, Northern Pintail, and Black Tern.
In North Dakota, in the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region, Audubon is piloting cost-share opportunities with private landowners to provide grazing infrastructure (perimeter and cross fencing, water wells, pipelines, etc.), invasive species removal/control, and prairie restoration/reconstruction. Program enrollment requires landowners to conserve their grasslands for up to ten years, depending on the specific conservation practices implemented. Audubon staff work with landowners to develop and implement site-specific Habitat Management Plans that include plans for monitoring and assessing the impact of the applied land management practices on birds and vegetation. We are now expanding this unique grassland management assistance program into other parts of the Northern Great Plains.
Market-based Incentives for Grassland Conservation
Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative uses an innovative, market-based approach to incentivize bird-friendly livestock management practices. These regenerative grazing practices improve soil health, diversify habitat structure, and ensure environmental sustainability that benefits pollinators and other grassland wildlife. Ranchers who comply with Audubon-approved habitat management plans earn the right to use the “Grazed on Audubon Certified Bird Friendly Land” certification mark in product promotion, attracting conservation-conscious consumers and supporting premium pricing. Currently, nearly 2 million acres and 65 ranches across 11 states are certified through the initiative, with more in the pipeline. Products with this certification are available from 26 retailers and 12 restaurants across 7 states, and 11 companies that sell online. Audubon’s goal is to have 2.5 million acres enrolled by the end of 2020. It is a win-win approach that strengthens the economic vitality of rural communities and builds healthy functioning grassland ecosystems.
Carbon sequestration represents another opportunity for ranchers to accrue both economic and ecological benefits from regenerative grazing practices. While the agricultural sector represents 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, there is growing evidence that soils on agricultural lands, especially grasslands, can store a considerable amount of carbon dioxide. Markets are now emerging that pay ranchers to preserve and manage their grasslands and to lock carbon into the soil. While this is a fledgling industry, methods and protocols have been developed to measure carbon sequestration rates, generate credits and verify results, and transactions have occurred whereby landowners sell carbon sequestration credits in voluntary markets. The management practices that sequester carbon into soils on ranches also foster healthy habitats for wildlife, and more nutrient-rich food for livestock. Audubon is exploring how it can best facilitate this market and provide landowners with an additional financial incentive that produces results beneficial to protecting grasslands.
Federal and State Policies
Conversion to row crop agriculture, urban development, oil and gas development, and fire suppression and subsequent woody encroachment are the primary sources of loss of native prairie landscapes. In order to limit future grassland conversion, Audubon will pursue a proactive policy strategy at the federal and state levels that incentivizes grassland conservation and discourages excessive conversion practices. The following are some key policy opportunities:
What happens on our nation’s 914 million acres of farms and ranches has significant implications for North American birds and other wildlife. The largest federal funding source for conservation on these lands is the Farm Bill, which provides agricultural producers and private landowners with billions of dollars in assistance for adopting conservation practices in their operations. Farm Bill programs are critical for birds and other wildlife—in 2015 alone, they improved almost 9 million acres of wildlife habitat. Audubon helped to secure passage of the 2018 Farm Bill reauthorization, expanding funding and access to programs benefiting birds and other wildlife. Ensuring continued authorization and working with private landowners on opportunities to participate in these programs are ongoing priorities for Audubon.
State Wildlife Action Plans
State Wildlife Action Plans identify imperiled species in the state and describes actions to assist in their recovery and protection. The State Wildlife Grants Program is currently the main source of federal funding for states and territories as they implement these plans; however, it currently provides only $70 million for all 50 states and territories, not nearly enough to enable recover and protection of imperiled species. Audubon is working to help secure funding for State Wildlife Action Plans across the Great Plains—an essential step for the birds and people who depend on this important landscape.