Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Conservation Ranching is for the Birds

by CRARS staff member Sheryl Karas. M.A.

Lark Sparrow

According to a recent study by Cornell University (PDF), North America has lost 2.9 billion birds since 1970 due to extreme habitat loss. Grasslands, such as those found in California, are the most affected—grassland birds(opens in new window) have declined by 53% in the past 50 years. Traditional conservation efforts are not enough to stem the loss of biodiversity. Plus, the vast majority of grassland birds live on private land mostly owned by cattle ranchers, so Audubon decided to try a radical new conservation strategy.

“Keep ranchers ranching!” says Pelayo Alvarez, director of the Audubon Conservation Ranching Program in California(opens in new window). Audubon decided to work with the land owners instead of removing them from the land and working at cross purposes with each other.

Wait, what? Isn’t cattle ranching bad for the environment? What about methane-laden cow burps and farts? What about overcrowded environment-polluting feedlots?

It turns out that when managing their land, the ranchers wind up managing for more than just beef, they manage for the ecosystem, too. “Clean air, carbon sequestration, water—but right now we only pay them for the beef,” says Alvarez. “Let’s pay them for conservation.”

“What most people don’t understand,” Alvarez explains, is that while it is true “more than 85% of beef production is held by large corporations who depend on ‘finishing’ beef by quickly fattening up the cows in feedlots, most animals start out on a family ranch, on green pastures.” Those grasslands actually evolved with grazing animals like bison, elk, deer, and pronghorn antelope. Prairie plants need disturbance by these creatures as part of their natural lifecycle. As those animals move through the environment to avoid predators (instead of staying penned in one place), the grass has a chance to recover. It is during that recovery period that plants particularly take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to aid in the photosynthesis required for bright green new growth. They also put down deeper roots and, with the help of healthier soil biology stimulated by the manure and urine from the animals, the grasslands build soil and sequester carbon in the ground. The huge herds of animals that used to roam these lands are gone, but cattle that are managed in a way that mimics this movement (such as rotational grazing) could play a similar role. In fact, more greenhouse gasses could be removed from the atmosphere than the methane released by the cows. And, according to a study by U.C. Davis, grasslands in California could prove to be a more reliable carbon repository than forests. The process also results in a greater diversity of plants because the animals don’t overeat their favorites, and creates a better habitat for birds, pollinating insects, and other wildlife to thrive.

The intention behind Audubon’s Conservation Ranching program is to partner with ranchers to work with their cattle in a healthy way for the environment and reward them for maintaining and improving bird habitat when they succeed in enticing the birds back. “Birds are indicators of rangeland health,” says Alvarez. “If the birds are doing well, the land is doing well. They tell us what the land is doing.” If birds don’t like an environment, they fly away; when they do like one, they come back. A study of 35 Audubon-certified ranches in the Northern Great Plains from 2016–2019 showed that bird populations on those lands increased by an average of 35 percent. One ranch in Wyoming showed an increase of 180%.

Benefits to Ranchers and Consumers

Ranchers are an endangered species, too! Pelayo Alvarez likes to tell an old joke: “The fastest way to make a small fortune in farming is to start with a big one and buy a ranch"! It’s a challenging industry, especially in the face of climate change. When times are hard, it can look awfully enticing to sell out to a land developer who will turn their land into something more lucrative like multi-million dollar homes and estates or a tract of smaller homes and businesses. (That’s one of the reasons why habitat is disappearing.)

And yet Alvarez says “these folks have an attachment to the land and want to pass it on to future generations. It’s not money that keeps them ranching—it’s love for the land and the lifestyle. Ranchers love wildlife because they see it every day . . . The ranchers in this program are the stars. The value they bring to society is unbelievable!” So why not create a “win-win-win” for everyone?

Joe Morris of Morris Grassfed(opens in new window) is an Audubon certified rancher, mentor-farmer, and member of the leadership council at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems(opens in new window). He says, “My connection to the land was visceral. We’ve been taking care of land and cattle and kinds of wildlife for five generations, since the middle of the 19th century, since the Gold Rush . . . The difference between me and my grandfather who preceded me is not ethics. It’s information. It’s incumbent on me to use the information we have to get better and better effects.”

The information Audubon provides helps this happen. Their Grazed on Bird-Friendly Land certification program(opens in new window) includes help from a science team that measures the abundance, diversity, and resilience of birds in the area. The enrolled ranchers also receive technical assistance and continued monitoring to make improvements. This can help them access federal or state cost-share and incentive programs to help offset any costs that might be involved in making changes. There is no cost to participate in the program itself. Ranchers who direct-market their own products can also use Audubon’s Bird-Friendly Beef label and often find they can sell those products at a higher price.

Morris likes participating in the Audubon program because “the label and monitoring that Audubon is doing allows us to measure our management and relate the story of how Morris Grassfed is managing for improved land function, and that is a benefit to the whole community.”

Pelayo Alvarez emphasizes that this is “power for the consumer—you don’t have to feel guilty for eating beef!” People who purchase Audubon-certified beef can rest assured that their food is hormone and antibiotic-free, and ethically raised in a healthy environment good for birds, good for the land, good for the climate, and good for small family ranchers as well.

Learn more(opens in new window).

Image credit: Lark Sparrow. Becky Matsubara from El Sobrante, California, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons