The past few years have confirmed that North American birds are in bad shape. Three billion North American birds have perished since the 1970s. A warming future may force many of those remaining to the brink of extinction. And the birds of America’s vast grasslands are the hardest hit of all, declining 53 percent since the first Earth Day. Most of them live on privately-held ranch- or rangeland. That’s where you can help.
We all make dozens of decisions every day that impact climate change and the world around us: whether we drive or walk to a nearby pharmacy, the light we forget to turn off as we leave a room, buying organic rather than conventional. When it comes to meat, particularly beef, the choice has been presented as buying a water-guzzling, greenhouse gas-belching product, or doing without. Still, three out of four Audubon members say they either occasionally or regularly eat beef, and fortunately, there’s a way they can help bring back grassland birds and even reduce greenhouse gases while feeling good about the beef they put on their table.
The National Audubon Society created the Conservation Ranching Initiative (ACR) in order to support ranchers while protecting and renewing grassland habitats and increasing populations of grassland birds. Audubon range ecologists partner with ranchers to develop habitat management plans customized to make their land more bird-friendly through practices including rotational grazing and minimizing use of chemicals. That encourages the growth of native grasses, which, with their deep and extensive root systems, form a potent carbon sink. In some areas, cattle even mimic the historic role of the buffalo herds that once roamed the Great Plains. In return, ranchers sell their Audubon-certified beef at a premium, enabling them to make a profit and consumers like you to make smart choices that directly benefit birds and people.
The benefits are measureable. Audubon’s science team has developed a Bird-Friendliness Index to quantify ACR’s impact on vulnerable grassland and aridland birds. It measures the abundance, diversity, and resilience of the bird community on ACR-certified ranchland, and compares them to conventionally managed lands.
"We developed the Bird-Friendliness Index as a metric that sums up the impacts on the abundance, diversity, and resilience of the bird community in a single, easy-to-understand number," said Nicole Michel, director of quantitative science for the National Audubon Society and leader of this effort. "We wanted to be able to demonstrate the impact of Conservation Ranching on the grassland and aridland bird community."
We calculated the Bird-Friendliness Index for the first 35 ranches during ACR’s initial years (2016-2019) to quantify the impact on grassland birds. Overall, the Bird-Friendliness Index score was 0.54, four points higher than conventionally-managed ranchland – which means that ACR-certified land is more bird-friendly than nearby conventionally managed lands. Grassland bird abundance increased by 36 percent on average, and the mean conservation score increased by 1.6 percent - which means that more vulnerable birds are finding food and shelter on ACR ranches.
At the Fiddleback Ranch in Wyoming, for instance, grassland birds have increased in abundance by nearly 180 percent on average. Moreover, the most vulnerable birds have shown the biggest jumps: Burrowing Owl densities increased by 27 percent, and Grasshopper Sparrows were 19 times more abundant after we helped implement bird-friendly habitat management plans. To top it all off, functional diversity increased 24 percent.
Altogether, this means that Audubon's bird-friendly management helped the grassland bird community become more diverse and resilient, and provided shelter for more vulnerable grassland birds. The Bird-Friendliness Index tells us that Audubon Conservation Ranching works to protect and restore grassland birds.
Since 2016, Audubon has worked to enroll more than 100 ranches in our Bird-Friendly Beef Program, now covering 2.5 million acres along the Central Flyway, and expanding into California and other areas. ACR-certified ranches commit to raising grass-fed cattle, never exposed to feedlots, hormones, antibiotic use or neonicotinoid pesticides.
We didn’t create the Bird-Friendly Beef certification for the money. In fact, Audubon doesn’t profit from your purchase, neither from enrolled ranches nor market partners. We did it for the grassland song birds, and science is showing the benefits clearly.