Working With Ranchers to Restore Rangelands

A new tool for improving bird habitat on millions of acres

Ferruginous Hawk nesting on Rockin' 7 Ranch, certified by Audubon's Conservation Ranching Initiative. Photo: Evan Barrientos/Audubon Rockies

Conservation Ranching Initiative

Due to widespread habitat loss, grassland birds have recently declined more than any other bird group on the continent, some species by as much as 80 percent. Because the majority breed on private land, working with ranchers is our best hope for conserving them. Through our Conservation Ranching Initiative, Audubon is partnering with ranchers to implement bird-friendly management on millions of acres. Ranches that meet our protocols receive an Audubon certification, which can help garner a premium price. The result: consumers have a way to support bird-friendly ranches, ranchers stay in business, and birds’ habitat is restored and conserved.

Creating a New Monitoring Tool

Years ago, when Audubon Rockies Executive Director Alison Holloran was helping form Audubon's Conservation Ranching Initiative, she knew that it wouldn’t be enough just to certify ranches and advise their management practices. In order to know if Audubon were actually helping birds, we would need to monitor the ecological changes on the ground. This year, Holloran and other Audubon staff created a tool that greatly advances our ability to understand those changes.

Audubon’s Bird Friendliness Index, published last October in a peer-reviewed journal, provides an invaluable way to assess bird communities on ranches. “It’s not enough to just count the birds on a ranch,” said Holloran. “We need to know what’s happening on the landscape around those birds.” With the index, we can now do so.

The index helps Audubon understand whether changes in a bird community were caused by the direct impacts of our management, or by things beyond our control, like development on the surrounding landscape. By revealing our direct impacts, we’ll be able to better adjust our management recommendations to benefit birds.

The index builds off of Audubon Rockies’ already robust ranch monitoring protocols. In 2020, we completed bird, vegetation, and soil monitoring on 14 ranches in three states.

Why monitor things besides birds? “Ultimately, we’re trying to create a variety of habitats in different areas of a ranch so that the most species can use it,” said Dusty Downey, conservation ranching lead for Audubon Rockies. “We have a fairly good idea of what our focal bird species need, but unless you measure their habitat, you don’t know if you’re really helping them.” Soil and vegetation are two of the most fundamental components of habitat health.

This year, our monitoring efforts yielded two interesting recommendations. “On one ranch, soil monitoring showed that they could graze at a significantly higher density without compromising the root systems,” said Downey. “They actually needed to graze more heavily to break up some of the compaction in the topsoil to allow for more water to sink in, which is critical during dry years.”

“On another ranch, we learned that we needed to do the opposite. We were probably taking too much of the early spring growth every year. So we need to take the cows to a different pasture to do calving so that the vegetation gets back to where it needs to be.”

Insights like these, applied to millions of acres, are how Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative is making a real difference for an overlooked and threatened group of birds.

2020 by the Numbers: Conservation Ranching Initiative
Scaled Quail. Photo: Evan Barrientos/Audubon Rockies

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