Diverse, native grasslands once stretched uninterrupted from the Northern Rockies to South Texas, supporting a range of wildlife and defining a way of life for generations of Americans. Approximately 80% of these grasslands have been lost to development and other threats – and the birds that depend on them are disappearing too. Prairie chickens, bobwhite quail, loggerhead shrike, and many other grassland species have suffered unprecedented population losses in recent decades. The National Audubon Society works to conserve and restore natural ecosystems for the benefit of birds, other wildlife, and the lands on which they depend. The Audubon Conservation Ranching program is working with ranchers across the country to restore grassland habitat by improving ranchland with regenerative grazing practices, creating ecosystem-wide benefits to wildlife, soil health, water cycle health, and ecosystem resiliency. 95% of Texas land is privately owned, making a program that promotes the sustainable, ecologically healthy management of private lands critical to the success of grassland conservation in the state. Audubon Texas was also selected as a 2021 Conservation Wrangler and is a TxN Conservation Partner.
Project Description & History
The Audubon Conservation Ranching program established an innovative, market-based approach that connects conservation-conscious consumers to farmers and ranchers that employ bird-friendly management practices in raising their livestock. Since 2014, ACR has worked with beef producers, state and federal agency partners, industry experts, and other NGOs to develop an innovative, producer-centered, market-based certification program.
Most remaining grasslands are privately owned therefore grassland bird conservation can only be achieved through cooperative approaches that work with farmers and ranchers that live and work on these lands. Each participating rancher adopts a Habitat Management Plan (HMP) that is uniquely developed for their operation to address site-specific habitat and bird conservation opportunities. These plans are adaptive and can be modified over time to address changes in the landscape and landowner objectives. Audubon uses a “Bird-friendliness Index” to monitor birds on every certified ranch.
Program certification is achieved by following the HMP and a set of program protocols. The program rewards Audubon-certified ranchers by connecting them to premium consumer markets, thus providing continuing benefits to birds and people that share the lands. Program certification is maintained annually through a third-party verification audit.
ACR is breathing new life into our struggling grasslands—providing healthy habitat for birds, pollinators, and other wildlife, and enabling ranchers to work their land in traditional and sustainable ways. Regenerative grazing rebuilds soil organic matter and restores degraded soil biodiversity. This practice mitigates the soil destruction (i.e., decarbonization, erosion, desertification, chemical pollution) that poses a significant risk to grassland ecosystem health. Fertile soils can support greater biodiversity and overall ecosystem health while increasing carbon sequestration. Regenerative grazing and improved soil health also increase groundwater infiltration rates and improve streamflow functions.
For the first time, consumers will have a choice in the marketplace to select beef and bison products that they can be assured come from ranches in which management is doing good things for grassland birds and other wildlife, with many benefits to soils, water, and the livelihood of Texas ranchers that are the stewards of these landscapes. Through their purchases, consumers can incentivize bird-friendly practices on Audubon-certified lands, rewarding these practices and creating the demand for other ranches to join as well.
They have helped local ranching communities conserve high-quality grassland habitats, and repair those that are degraded while bettering their long-term economic outlook. The ACR program has well-established pilot sites in nine states, including Texas, and has partnerships with 42 restaurants, retailers, and institutions (e.g., hospitals, schools, etc.) who buy beef produced on ACR-certified ranches. To date, there are 59 ranches totaling 810,394 acres in the program, including 30,000 acres in Texas. Thirty of these ranches are already selling products through our supply chain.