Audubon enlists grass-fed meat brand to conserve critical bird habitat

The National Audubon Society today announced a partnership with Perdue-owned Panorama Organic Grass-fed Meats that will add nearly a million acres to its Conservation Ranching Initiative. Audubon has focused recent conservation efforts on privately owned rangelands, where 95 percent of grassland bird species live, and the deal with Panorama boosts the total acreage in its ranching program to 3.5 million.

Panorama’s 34 ranchers in eight states are certified USDA organic and have a Global Animal Partnership Step 4 rating for animal welfare. By adopting Audubon’s protocols, these pasture-based producers can market their beef and bison with the 116-year-old organization’s “grazed on bird-friendly land” endorsement.

Ranchers do not pay to participate. Instead, the goal is to reward stewardship on private working lands in the marketplace through price premiums on grass-fed meat, sales of which surged during the pandemic by more than 50 percent.

Cattle production is an environmental lightning rod, with critics taking aim at everything from methane emissions to deforestation. But Amanda D. Rodewald, senior director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said via email that without initiatives like Audubon’s, certain bird species could require federal protection to survive. “No one wants that outcome,” she said. “Not farmers, not ranchers, not hunters, not birdwatchers and not conservationists.”

Audubon vice president Marshall Johnson, who directs the ranching program, said in an interview that he is well aware of what he calls “the 50,000-foot narrative around cattle ranching and its impacts.” But he stands behind the program’s science on the ground. “We wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t beneficial for birds and the alternative wasn’t disastrous for birds,” he said.

Since the first Earth Day, in 1970, 3 billion birds have disappeared from the American landscape, according to a 2019 study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Grassland bird species, such as Lark Buntings, Grasshopper Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks, have suffered the steepest declines at 53 percent. But even shorebirds, the second most affected biome, include species, such as Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews and Piping Plovers, that nest in or adjacent to grasslands.

While urban sprawl, energy development and climate change have all contributed to habitat loss, the number one driver is conversion of grasslands to croplands. “Most prairies had already been lost by 1970,” said Rodewald. “Declines have tracked agricultural intensification.”

Audubon’s goal is to protect the remaining 360 million acres of diverse grasslands from California to the Central Flyway, a vast migratory route that stretches from Montana to Texas, by working directly with landowners, 90 percent of whom raise livestock. Launched in 2017, the ranching initiative establishes a habitat management plan for each ranch, which is audited by rangeland ecologists for water quality, soil carbon, plant diversity, pollinators, birds and other wildlife. The Nature Conservancy recently launched similar initiatives with Kansas ranchers to support Lesser Prairie Chickens and shorebirds that depend on the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie.

One key metric is Audubon’s Bird Friendliness Index. This peer-reviewed tool measures bird abundance, diversity and resilience on the certified ranches and compares it to livestock operations in the same area. It also tracks progress over time. Initial data show that bird populations have increased 36 percent on average compared to populations on conventional operations.

“What has been missing from regenerative agriculture as a whole is the biodiversity focus and monitoring around birds, which are a great indicator of local environmental health,” Johnson said.