Grasslands Initiative

By partnering with private landowners, Audubon can help ensure a bright future for birds and a healthy landscape for future generations.

Grasslands Initiative

By partnering with private landowners, Audubon can help ensure a bright future for birds and a healthy landscape for future generations.

America’s Central Grasslands and Avian Biodiversity:

The shortgrass prairie in eastern New Mexico is part of the central grasslands of North America. The central grasslands harbor a rich biological diversity. It is considered one of North America’s most endangered ecosystems and least protected landscapes in the United States. During the late 20th century, the grassland indicator for 24 dependent grassland breeding birds declined by nearly 40%. Populations have stabilized at low levels after decades of decline.

Within eastern New Mexico, Audubon has designated over 2 million acres of grasslands as a Globally Important Bird Area for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. The New Mexico Lesser-Prairie Chicken Complex is also home to other declining grassland species such as Ferruginous Hawk, Burrowing Owl, Scaled Quail, and Cassin’s Sparrow. These species and other New Mexico grassland dependent birds have been identified as surrogates for overall grassland biodiversity.  In other words, their presence is indicative of the health of the State’s grasslands.

Many of the ecological processes that sustain the shortgrass prairie ecosystem including native grazers, such as bison and black-tailed prairie dogs, and fire have been eradicated or suppressed. Human disturbances – including overgrazing, agricultural conversion, oil and gas extraction and wind-power development – are contributing to the loss, degradation and fragmentation of New Mexico’s remaining intact native grasslands. Appropriate grazing by domestic cattle, along with other management practices, is an important tool to restore the health of shortgrass prairie habitat.

The Role of Working Lands:

More than half of the historical and occupied range of prairie-chickens in eastern NM is privately owned. Given that substantial grassland habitat is in private hands, Audubon feels it is essential that we work in partnership with and for the benefit of ranchers if we are to conserve the bird species we are most concerned about.  The goal of Audubon is to promote sustainable ranching practices that foster thriving wildlife and grasslands, economic stability, and preserve traditions and a way of life for the ranching community.  Listening sessions with ranchers in Wyoming and South Dakota highlight the financial and other challenges facing ranchers who are striving to make a living and support their families from working the land including an aging demographic, lack of capacity in marketing, a changing climate and rigorous monitoring of grasslands that can track positive changes at the ranch scale. Further, ranching practices are not sufficiently incentivized for conservation outcomes contributing to land-use decisions that provide short-term economic gain but reduce the long-term health of the remaining intact grasslands.

Audubon’s Strategy: Conservation Ranching

In order to sustainably engage private lands in grassland conservation, Audubon and its partners must deliver a financially feasible agricultural alternative to traditional practices that have proven to be the largest threat to these native habitats.  This alternative is Audubon New Mexico’s Conservation Ranching Initiative. Currently, Audubon has identified seven proof of concept pilots in five geographies throughout the central grasslands that are designed to demonstrate that ranchers can manage grasslands for both ecosystem health and economic productivity under an Audubon grass-fed beef brand and certification program using bird-friendly grazing management standards.

Seldom are there economic opportunities that align, support, and sustain nature’s ecosystems.  Through careful and deliberate study that included consultation with numerous market experts, conservation partners, landowners and our own membership, we have learned that Audubon can apply its brand purpose and mission to drive consumer behavior in support of the development and preservation of bird habitat.  For the past four years, Audubon has been developing a market-based conservation ranching pilot to address this threat.  Our approach is to create incentives for cattle ranchers to manage their grasslands for the benefit of grassland birds in locations throughout the Central Flyway and northern Mexico.

Audubon New Mexico is seeking funding to launch a pilot Conservation Ranching program in eastern New Mexico that will further expand Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative.  We will identify one or more ranchers in eastern New Mexico who will agree to work with Audubon in the proof of concept pilot phase and develop protocols and standards that benefit New Mexico grassland birds and life cycle habitat needs. The proof of concept pilot phase is focused on testing and learning how to implement the program at a site level. Audubon is looking to recruit exemplar ranchers who, with minor to moderate adjustments, are certification-ready in grasslands of ecological importance with easily implementable supply chains.  We will do this namely through the following elements:

  1. Create grassland conservation ranching standards for ranchers to follow that are designed to target specific grassland bird species and lifecycle habitat needs.
  2. Carefully monitor and measure the bird and habitat response to these land management standards so that adjustments can be made in order to achieve the desired conservation outcomes.
  3. Support participating private landowners to establish a reliable supply chain and retail outlets for the premium agricultural products they produce.
  4. Leverage Audubon’s brand to drive consumer interest in bird-friendly agricultural products produced under the monitored land management standards of the conservation ranching program.
  5. Advocate for state and federal financial assistance programs for ranchers who adopt conservation ranching protocols.

How you can help, right now