Editor’s Desk — FERN’s biodiversity initiative

The Wallowa Mountains rise behind the rolling. Zumwalt Prairie in northeast Oregon.

To varying degrees, the issue of biodiversity runs through many of our stories. Agriculture — which is at the heart of the food system we cover — is a leading culprit in the loss of habitat for all manner of flora and fauna around the world.

But after the UN released a report last year on the staggering loss of biodiversity, we decided to take a deeper look specifically at the threat agriculture poses, since more than a third of the planet’s land surface is devoted to crop or livestock production. At the same time, we wanted to report on farming practices that have managed to protect and even enhance diversity of plants and animals.

The first story of the series, published this week with The Guardian, touches on both of those ideas. Reporter Lynne Curry takes us to the sweeping Zumwalt prairie in eastern Oregon, where The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is involved in a long-term experiment with a handful of local cattle ranchers to determine whether grazing can be managed in a way that allows the prairie to thrive and the ranchers to earn a living.

The Zumwalt, which stretches “500 square miles between the glaciated Wallowa Mountains and the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest,” is “the largest surviving native bunchgrass prairie in North America,” Curry writes. “This diverse ecosystem supports key populations of raptors, songbirds, bees, butterflies and rare native plants, along with elk herds and other wildlife.”

As Curry notes, ranchers and conservationists are often at odds. While cattlemen claim to be good stewards of the land, they have “a long history of overgrazing” that “has degraded the soil, fouled waterways and destroyed plant and wildlife habitat.” TNC is using science — and a lot of trial and error — in an attempt to bridge this divide.

Like so many things, our biodiversity project was waylaid by the global pandemic. As 2020 dawned we had several stories in the pipeline. As I write, it remains unclear when it will be possible to send our reporters out to cover those stories, some of which require international travel. (Curry happens to live not far from the Zumwalt, in a part of Oregon that has thus far been largely spared by the virus, and so she was able to report with minimal risk.)

But we will finish the series, which was underwritten by a grant from the Band Foundation, and we’ll keep you updated as we do.