Of Habitat and Hoof Prints

Quail Forever & Audubon Conservation Ranching partnering to increase conservation grazing on the Great Plains

“The central thesis of game management is this: game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it — axe, plow, cow, fire, and gun.” - Aldo Leopold

Grazing is a grassland habitat management tool that, were it to manifest as an actual steel implement, would forge a double-edged knife.

On one side, an edge worn down from overuse. Dulled from widespread and common ranching practices, which are designed to get as many cattle as large as is quickly possible, the result is overgrazing.

This tactic meets its myopic goal but is blunt force trauma to the land. These are the pastures where sprigs of grass appear to be fighting for their lives. With scant vegetation, limited plant diversity, and no structure, there’s limited-to-zero bird habitat.

The opposing, finer edge is conservation grazing, a group of rotational and regenerative practices intended to create different–layered habitats capable of supporting numerous grassland bird species, pollinators, and other wildlife. Wielded in this fashion, cows — which are still being grown for production value — are strategically numbered, placed, and moved around the land to manipulate a mosaic of grassland bird habitat.

As a history lesson, remember that occasionally hosting a herd of herbivores is how grasslands evolved to survive and replenish. For thousands of years, guests included roaming parties of bison, whose foraging opened and promoted prairie patchworks that added up to a biodiverse wonderland.

Cattle, the domesticated, ruminant relatives of bison, don't go as they please or make their own dinner reservations. But with ranchers and land managers strategically setting the table, they can be a similarly sharp habitat management tool if early successional habitat for quail and other upland birds is on the menu.

Fledgling Partnership

In 2017 the National Audubon Society unveiled Audubon Conservation Ranching, a market-based habitat program that's set sail to stabilize declining grassland bird populations, which have been cut by more than half in the last 50 years.

Its success rides in first building partnerships with private landowners and wielding the good–for–birds side of the blade, accomplished with a range of variations of adaptive rotational grazing. Then it moves to what for a conservation organization is uncharted terrain: the consumer marketplace.

This market twist is what is setting Audubon Conservation Ranching apart in the world of modern grassland conservation. Once conservation practices are in place on an enrolled ranch, Audubon awards an official bird-friendly habitat certification. Producers then use the Audubon Certified bird-friendly seal on their beef and bison products to recognize they originated on lands actively managed for wildlife through the aforementioned set of practices. It's promising to be a scalable solution to meet the grassland habitat challenges of our time, with more than 140 ranches totaling 3.5 million acres already under bird-friendly land management.

Achieving this kind of conservation success is rarely accomplished by one organization, as illustrated here. In the pheasant range, the National Audubon Society, Montana Audubon, and Pheasants Forever joined forces in expanding Audubon Conservation Ranching in "Big Sky Country." Now, with a new grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) that will provide two years of funding, "The Habitat Organization" — with Pheasants Forever's sister division, Quail Forever, stepping in as the lead bird — will work with Audubon to grow the habitat hoof print of Audubon Conservation Ranching in Kansas and Oklahoma. The two states currently combine for four ranches and 24,000 acres in the program, and with NFWF backing are striving for up to 90,000 additional acres over the next two years.

Both bird conservation organizations, Audubon and Quail Forever each bring strengths to the partnership that preview to act in complement. In Kansas and Oklahoma, Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever have a well-established network of biologists, many already connected to producers and their current grazing management practices. The potential to tie Audubon Conservation Ranching in, enhance current practices, and amplify their bird-friendly management in the marketplace is high.

One of the certified habitats in Oklahoma is Circle N Ranch near Waurika, the home of Nitschke Natural Beef. Here, Lauren and Gary Nitschke’s herd makes weight while carving out the kind of cover Northern Bobwhites thrive in. Other flagship birds, like the Eastern Meadowlark and Oklahoma's state bird, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, are priority species on the ranch. But the pastures, with the right combination of rotation and rest, also work for grassland-dependent bird species that include the Bell's Vireo, Dickcissel, Field Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow's Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike, Sedge Wren, and Upland Sandpiper.

Ground-level for Quail

"In the modern quail stronghold of the Great Plains, grazing is probably the most important tool for manipulating good bobwhite quail habitat," said Thomas Schroeder, Audubon Conservation Ranching manager in Oklahoma and Texas.

Like all upland birds, bobwhite quail are creatures of edges, and it is edges — inside, outside, high, and low — that come in spades with rotational and regenerative grazing practices. This includes areas of thicker nesting cover checkered with open areas and a certain amount of requisite bare ground — which bobs need to travel with ease, find seeds to eat, and aid escapes.

A key component in this ideal habitat is species composition, or plant diversity. Often slandered and treated as the unwanted, "weeds" experience a rebirth in Audubon Conservation Ranching, where they’re more affectionately labeled "forbs" and desired by both quail and grass-fed cows alike.

"Not only are forb seeds a staple of the bobwhite's diet, but the flowering plants — these days better known as "pollinator habitat" — attract insects, which are the essential food source for quail chicks," said Jordan Menge, Oklahoma State Coordinator for Quail Forever.

“And it turns out that those weeds can be an important part of a cow's diverse diet,” Schroeder adds.

Audubon Conservation Ranching restricts the use of pesticides, and herbicides, which are counterproductive for plant diversity, soil health, and ground-dwelling birds. Schroeder says subtracting these chemicals from the landscape allows more forbs to flourish.

To the uninitiated, it may also seem a wonder how one-ton cows and six-ounce quail peacefully coexist. Texas A&M University studied this years ago and found that it takes a lot of cattle — about 80 head/acre — before nest trampling becomes a concern. Stocking rates — basically the number of cows on a piece of land over a certain period of time — vary from ranch to ranch, and are determined in each ranch’s habitat management plan with consideration to wildlife goals, soil type, annual rainfall, etc. With ground-nesting birds as a primary and measured outcome, stocking rates in Audubon Conservation Ranching are carefully considered.

While it's intuitive that more and/or better habitat is good for quail, Audubon performs bird monitoring at every single ranch enrolled in the program to evaluate the effects of these practices on quail and other bird populations. At Round Rock Ranch, the first Audubon Certified bird-friendly ranch in Missouri that also lies within the Missouri Department of Conservation's Dade County Quail Focus Area, patch–burn grazing and the conversion of fescue back to native plants have re-covered the way to a 5-fold increase in quail.

This monitoring in Kansas and Oklahoma will be a crucial dataset, one that can inform future Audubon range ecologists and/or Quail Forever biologists where to tweak ranch–specific habitat management plans. With habitat firmly rooted in the ground, bird monitoring rooted in science sets the program up for proven, long–term success.

Beyond Birds: Biodiverse Benefits

From the whistling Northern Bobwhite to the singing Eastern Meadowlark to the swooping Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, birds are colorful, key indicators of healthy, restored grasslands. But the practices that got them there ripple across the ecosystem.

Better–protected ranch wetlands and riparian areas, combined with chemical restrictions, reduce runoff and improve water quality. Healthier grasslands also retain more groundwater.

While topside habitat gets all the glory, what’s brewing below the surface may be what sells Audubon Conservation Ranching farther and wider in the future. Regenerative grazing practices increase soil organic matter, which through an underground chain of events equates to more stored soil carbon. Scientific evidence continues to mount that healthy grasslands capture carbon at levels that can play a major role in mitigating climate change.

Because the tool has been used one way for so long, all of this can seem revolutionary. But it's more evolutionary, a return to the original form. There are grasslands to save, birds to bring back, and maybe a planet to keep from peril.

And it can all start with a spread of grass and a cow. “And you know what they say, right?” Schroeder says, “It’s not the cow. It’s the ‘how.’”

This article also appears in the summer issue of the Quail Forever Journal of Quail Conservation.