It started as an exchange between Marshall Johnson, who had just taken the helm at Audubon Dakota, and a cattle rancher eight years ago. Johnson had just completed his first conservation project, on the rancher's land.
"You don’t care about my cattle,” Johnson remembers the rancher telling him, “and I can’t keep track of all the LBBs out there – little brown birds.” The two shared a chuckle, but on the five-hour drive home, Marshall thought, “there’s more to this partnership that Audubon should have with ranchers. I'd better be concentrated and focused on his cattle and his bottom line. How can we develop something that can reward ranchers and empower you to support ranchers and their ability to be climate solutions, to be environmental solutions to some of our biggest problems today?”
Eight years later, the answer has become Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative (ACR). Currently enrolling some 70 ranches and nearly two million acres in Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, California, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming, the Initiative works with ranchers and a third-party verifier to certify their land as “bird friendly.” With an estimated 90 percent of North America’s grasslands owned or managed by ranchers, Johnson says ranchers, farmers and consumers must be a part of the solution to habitat loss and climate change.
Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold
To participate in ACR, ranchers adopt “regenerative grazing practices” that mimic the grazing practices of historic bison herds that once roamed the plains. The techniques allow a variety of native grasses to grow and thrive by allowing pastures to rest and recover. That, in turn, provides habitat for imperiled grassland birds, whose numbers have declined by 50 percent over the past 100 years.
“Grasslands are a dynamic ecosystem,” Johnson said. “What you see is not what you get. If you see a prairie plant that is three feet tall, there is more than three to four times that beneath the surface, and that is where the magic happens. Those deep root systems can sequester more than five to 15 metric tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every year” per acre.
The program also requires that livestock be able to freely graze on open grassland, prohibits use of animal by-products or antibiotics in feed, prohibits use of feedlots, and includes monitoring for animal health and welfare. In return for their efforts, ranchers receive a premium price for their products, which bear Audubon’s “grazed on bird-friendly land” certification seal.