The campaign for “bird-friendly beef”
Graphic by Alex Hinton | Source Images: iStock
The National Audubon Society’s new certification program measures eco-benefits using a single, simple metric: birds. It’s a quietly radical approach that’s upending conventional wisdom about both cattle ranching and conservation.
In the spring of 2018, at the Rockefeller State Park Preserve in New York’s Hudson Valley, a pair of bobolinks nested successfully for the first time in over 50 years. The sparrow-sized songbirds selected an old hayfield for their ground nest, and before long, half a dozen pale freckled eggs lay cradled, hidden in the vegetation.
The teacup nest was just a subtle shift in the landscape. But its presence signaled a larger transformation in the hayfield, which had been used since the 1970s to grow feed for the Rockefeller family’s show cattle.
Decades of intensive management had devastated the native grassland ecology, according to Jack Algiere, director of agroecology at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the sustainable farming nonprofit that operates on a neighboring 80-acre parcel. Synthetic fertilizer, herbicides, and tractors had depleted and compacted the soil into densely packed earth, a hostile environment for wildlife.
“The field was mowed and hayed, mowed and hayed,” Algiere told me, standing onsite on a parched August day in 2019. “Not a hair out of place.” Little survived in the remaining stubble, and every year bobolink eggs—if there were any to begin with—got churned up in the hay mower.
Wild birds are the most visible and audible indicators of overall ecological health. It’s the flip side of the canary in the coalmine: call it the bobolink in the barnyard.
All that changed when Stone Barns finalized an agreement to manage the preserve’s lands. Algiere’s plan was to just let the grasses grow out and observe what happened. Rewilding, essentially.
So, the weeds came, and in May, the black-and-white bobolink male helicoptered over the field, trilling its mating song. Soon, a brown-mottled female with dark eyeliner arrived to approve the venue, and together they gathered nesting materials of weed stems and tender grasses. By June, six downy chicks fledged the nest, leaving home even before they could fly.
Encouraged by the birdlife, Algiere planned to bring in livestock early the next spring to churn the soils and fertilize them with fresh manure. But Stone Barns’ deputy director of ecology, Elijah Goodwin, objected. Every morning he had stood at the edge of the woodlot identifying native birds by song, and first spotted the bobolinks that had flown all the way in from South America to breed. The cows would only mess up his research.
But Algiere persisted, and the farm team, working on foot and using portable fencing, herded the cattle, shoulder by shoulder, briskly through the pasture. “The animals essentially massaged the whole environment,” he said. The ground became springy, sprouting timothy, trapline alfalfa, red and white clover, and other perennial grasses.
By the time flocks of male bobolinks arrived in May to scout the fields, the cows were out of the restricted zone. Four pairs nested and within weeks fledged eight healthy nestlings. Curiously, some of them selected brooding sites where cattle were actively grazing.
Two months later, when I arrived on a reporting trip to the sustainable farming education center, this was still breaking news: “Have you heard about the bobolinks?” everyone asked excitedly.
These ultra-distance migrators weren’t just a captivating sight. Wild birds are the most visible and audible indicators of overall ecological health. In North America, the more than 2,000 migratory and resident bird species serve as a lens through which to study changes in a particular environment—what scientists call a bioindicator.
“For many different types of ecosystems, components of the bird community very tightly reflect what’s happening with the habitat,” Ruth Bennett, a research ecologist from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, told me.
So, when waterways become polluted from agricultural runoff, aquatic birds quickly die off. When pesticides are applied to fields, swallows, swifts and other insectivores disappear. On the other hand, when chemicals are no longer used, birds tend to return, and populations rebound. By monitoring their number and diversity, then, ecologists can evaluate the success of restoration efforts.
With that principle in mind, the National Audubon Society—one of the world’s most storied environmental nonprofits—is scaling a new eco-certification that takes a surprising approach to gauging the health of land. The program proposes to measure environmental benefits, which are notoriously difficult to quantify, with a single, simple metric: birds.
This month, Audubon will formally launch its “bird-friendly beef” campaign at the national level, offering its seal of approval to cattle ranchers who can prove their methods will bring the birds back. The idea is that land managed with the needs of birds top of mind will improve ecologically across the board—with winged visitors as the unmistakable sign of success.
It’s a quietly radical move. Historically, U.S. wildlife conservation efforts have focused on preserving habitat. But Audubon’s new strategy is specifically geared toward improving the environmental value of working lands, implying that “nature” and “agriculture” are not mutually exclusive entities.
In the past century, the North American grasslands, including the Great Plains, were transformed—some might say destroyed—by farming practices that maximize agricultural output, especially mechanical, chemical, commodified forms of grain and meat production.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Now, as Audubon works to recuperate these ravaged ecosystems, cattle ranchers will play an unlikely but significant role in the solution.
Creating a supply chain of “bird-friendly beef,” backed by in-house scientific research, could rewrite the conservation playbook, while giving consumers a more concrete, easy-to-understand metric to fixate on, and putting some more money in ranchers’ pockets.
In this vision, birds are both end-goal and proof of concept: Their abundance makes the health of an entire system beautifully visible. Save the birds, the story goes, and you will have already improved the larger whole.
It’s the flip side of the canary in the coalmine: call it the bobolink in the barnyard.
In a TEDx talk from 2019, Marshall Johnson, who is today Audubon’s chief conservation officer, appears on a dark stage in a pale button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, black jeans, and a white cowboy hat.
“Birds are the prism through which Audubon views our work,” he tells the audience, in the soothing baritone of a nature film narrator, “and the grassland birds are the most imperiled in the entire world.”
In 10 minutes flat, he connects the dots between birds and beef to explain the rationale behind Audubon’s unlikely bird-friendly certification program. Called the Conservation Ranching Initiative, the program is its master plan to save these birds, which have declined in number by 53 percent in the past 50 years—a greater loss of birds than in any other biome.
The major reason for the precipitous bird declines is extreme habitat loss: “Less than half of the historic U.S. grasslands remain,” Johnson says.
Grasslands are the most massive natural ecosystem in the U.S.—and the most threatened. “Largely forgotten and misunderstood,” is how Audubon’s North American Grasslands and Birds Report describes them.
So, Audubon’s top priority is to preserve the surviving 370 million acres.
The tallgrass prairies stretch westward from Illinois, turning to mixed grass near the Rocky Mountains while the shortgrass prairie extends southward into Texas, reaching north into Canada and southward into Mexico. In the Great Basin, Intermountain West, Southwest, and California there are islands of arid scrubland and sage grass. Historically, savannas and prairies mixed with woodlands in the moist climates of the eastern states.
Audubon has determined that the best way to save birds is to collaborate with cattle ranchers—a group not typically considered conservation allies.
These spare, achromatic landscapes are easy to overlook, at least for relative newcomers to this continent. The Great Plains, once called the Great American Desert, has a long history of erasure—first the Native people and then the land, from the 1862 Homestead Acts through the Dust Bowl to the age of industrialized farming.
This explains, in part, why the land is vulnerable to development for cities and housing developments, roads and electrification, wind towers and solar panels, oil and gas mines, and row crop agriculture. For many, the grasslands just look like a good place to plow.
But left intact, these native lands are dynamic, high-functioning ecological systems. Invaluable and irreplaceable. “When we lose grasslands, we lose so much more,” Johnson tells the audience.
The best way to appreciate this particular ecosystem is to plant two feet spread wide over a patch of prairie, hitch forward at the hips, and look straight down. A bird’s eye view. An array of native grasses in heathery greens and amber come into focus, sprinkled with pink, yellow, and white wildflowers in May and June. This beauty is short-lived. By summer, the colors bleed away and the grasses go dormant.
National Audubon Society | Map by Daniel Huffman
“Senesce” is the word rangeland ecologists use, a term that sounds like wind fluttering through the dried perennial grasses. For most of the year, the plants look brittle, practically dead.
But underground, their roots plummet 10 feet or more with a total biomass up to six times the plant matter apparent on the soil’s surface. Invisible to the naked eye are the complex natural processes at work, circulating, purifying, and directing fresh water, like a giant built-in cooling system. Pink nitrogen-fixing nodules cling to the roots, microbial life forms that absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, grasslands could be more reliable carbon sinks even than forests in a warming climate.
“The preservation of the grasslands are essential to the future of humanity,” Johnson announces from the stage. With stakes this high, Audubon has determined that the best way to save them is to collaborate with the people who control most of the remaining grasslands in the U.S.—cattle ranchers—a group not typically considered conservation allies.
Audubon’s strategy is to recruit these landowners to adopt habitat management plans designed to improve the soil, water, and plant conditions for the sake of grassland birds. On every enrolled ranch, science teams conduct comprehensive bird surveys using the Bird Friendliness Index, a monitoring tool developed by Audubon’s scientists to measure the overall abundance, diversity, and resilience of a bird community.
How could this 116-year-old organization wholeheartedly embrace cows as a solution to an environmental crisis? And why would it adopt the motto, “No cows, no grass, no birds”?
In exchange for going through the ropes, ranchers with lands certified by Audubon receive the organization’s “raised on bird-friendly land” seal to leverage sales of their beef for environmentally conscious consumers.
In 2017, the year it launched, the conservation ranching program certified 32 cattle operations in the Great Plains. By 2019, the year of Johnson’s TEDx Talk, it had more than doubled to 65 ranchlands in eight states. By enlisting two million acres of ranchlands, the bird-friendly campaign extended Audubon’s reach well beyond its own center and sanctuaries.
In 2021, in an unprecedented move, brokered by Johnson, the organization publicized its first band partnership with Panorama Organic meat company, slated to bring an additional one million acres into the fold.
How could this 116-year-old organization wholeheartedly embrace cows as a solution to an environmental crisis? And why would it adopt the motto, “No cows, no grass, no birds”?
The reasons for this pivot are rooted in the peculiar ecology of grasslands and how Audubon’s youngest state director in a North Dakota outpost (staffed by an office of one) championed a renegade idea within the organization. His mission to grow bird-friendly beef to save grassland birds has become Audubon’s signature conservation campaign.
“I probably shouldn’t wear my cowboy hat as much as I do,” Johnson chuckled, when I mentioned that he dresses like a rancher during our first meeting over Zoom last April. He explained that his uncles in Texas all wore them (although only one was a cattleman)—as did his boyhood hero, Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. Marshall and former slave rumored to be the model for the Lone Ranger. “I remember picking up a book when I was 7 years old, and I had all of these questions because here was a Black face and a cowboy,” Johnson said.
Raised in Dallas and Los Angeles, Johnson comes from a family of trailblazers. His father was one of the first Black flight crew chiefs with the Air Force SR-71 “Blackbird,” the world’s fastest plane, and his mother was a disc jockey in the early sixties.
Panorama Organic, Wyatt DeVries
I suspect that the hat and his mile-wide smile smoothed introductions when Johnson took a part-time job in Fargo with Audubon. Fresh out of the University of Minnesota with a business management degree, he worked part-time as a field organizer for renewable energy reforms. Johnson expected the gig to last six months, tops.
At 24, he became state director of Audubon Dakota, one of the organization’s main hubs. Within a few years, Johnson was spearheading collaborative conservation projects in the Northern Great Plains, leveraging partnerships with landowners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies. At the same time, he effectively fundraised for the state office, where he was both vice president and all the staff, raising $50 million for grassland preservation in the Dakotas.
Over the past 13 years, Johnson has evolved from outlier to the leader for Audubon’s most paradigm-bending restoration project, soaring into national leadership as one of the architects and vice president of the Conservation Ranching Initiative. By the time we spoke again in late summer, he had been appointed Audubon’s chief conservation officer at 34 years old.
“I love birds. But I love nature more.”
Surprisingly, he is not a bird watcher, preferring to hunt upland birds. “I love birds,” Johnson told me. “But I love nature more.” He reminds me of Aldo Leopold—the ecologist and one-time Audubon director—who wrote in A Sand County Almanac of the people who can live without wild things and those who cannot.
Traditionally, Audubon took a preservation approach to grassland conservation, concentrating resources on its own preserves. In 2012, Johnson was managing two of them in the prairie potholes region, a critical breeding area for waterfowl and 300 other species. “I was a sponge for knowledge,” he told me. Whenever he cold-called on neighboring ranches, he noticed vibrant humming—bees, butterflies, and birdsong in the wake of the cattle.
“As someone not trained in biology, it was an anecdotal snapshot,” he told me. But he was struck by how the buzz of biodiversity on those ranchlands indicated something about the management that was absent on the Audubon sanctuaries. Cows, grass, and birds were somehow functioning together in those landscapes. “They were part of a working system,” Johnson said. And that system depends on ruminants to thrive.
One of the most unique and lesser-known features of the grasslands is that they evolved with grazing, along with other natural disturbances of fire (both natural and set intentionally by Native Americans) and drought. Prairie plants need disturbance as much as they need the sun to photosynthesize. It is part of their natural life cycle. And the complement of vegetative, insect, and wildlife communities in the grasslands also all depend on it.
Historically, wild grazers include bison, elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and grasshoppers, depending on geographic location. Bison are increasingly being re-introduced to take back their place in the food web across the Great Plains (especially on Native lands where they fulfill essential ecological and cultural roles).
Despite through-the-roof conservation spending, bird populations across the American prairies have dropped by more than half since the 1970s.
Domesticated livestock still dominate most open lands where their presence is often more destructive than anything else. For example, in pcontinuous grazing—where cattle roam freely within an entire property—cows use their binocular vision to select the tastiest plants, which get consumed, and their least favorites proliferate. Eventually, the grasslands lose the diversity and structures that support all wildlife.
But many argue that it doesn’t have to be that way. The working principle of regenerative grazing is to control the timing and intensity of livestock grazing patterns to sync with a grassland’s natural functioning. (While lightweight, movable fencing prevents cattle from congregating in waterways or trampling sensitive areas.) Ideally, the animal activity cultivates a natural mosaic of plants to support birds’ needs for food, nesting, and shelter.
Cattle, and increasingly goats and sheep, are playing a crucial role in grassland restoration projects across the U.S. The World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies employ livestock as tools for conservation. Along with state and federal agencies, tribes, and universities, these environmental organizations are partnering on working rangelands to enhance sustainability and address climate change as part of game-changing grasslands conservation strategy.
As the young upstart from the Fargo outpost, Johnson, along with a handful of other state directors, made the case that the traditional preservation approach—nature left untouched and protected—was “a crash course in what not to do.”
Beginning in 2012, Johnson was among a group of rebels within Audubon who introduced these practices on their preserves. In place of the one-size-fits-all conservation approach, it applied a patchwork method using livestock to enhance the habitat for grassland birds.
The out-of-the-box approach took the Audubon leadership by surprise. “The folks in headquarters said, ‘What’s going on out there? Are you trying to fence in North Dakota?’” Johnson said.
“The ranch is a refuge for birds and wildlife in that area. I knew we could manage it better with the tool of livestock grazing.”
But on these sanctuaries, dramatic changes unfolded, from the streams and plants to pollinators and birdlife. When well-managed cattle are present, Johnson said, the land “comes to life.”
These initial, postage stamp-sized demonstration projects bolstered evidence that grasslands need grazing in order to support healthier populations of the 42 bird species that depend on the grasslands to nest, breed, feed, and overwinter. It kicked off a series of strategic planning sessions at the national level to explore how Audubon could leverage grazing to achieve better bird outcomes in places where their populations continued to nose-dive.
The conservation ranching concept got its first dry run on the Audubon Rockies preserve near the Colorado front range. And it also turned out to be the organization’s first foray into the beef business.
Kiowa Creek Ranch, located an hour south of Denver, is an oasis of rare mixed grassland and towering Ponderosa pine trees encircled by housing developments, big box stores, and suburban sprawl. It was donated to Audubon for protection. But left on its own, the property grew clogged with spindly doghair pines.
The woody overgrowth fueled 2013’s devastating Black Forest wildfire, and in the aftermath, Canada thistle, mullein, and other invasive plants moved in quickly, shading out the native grasses.
In 2014, when rancher Dan Lorenz heard that 1,500 acres of grassland lay idle, he cold-called Audubon Rockies to see about a grazing lease. It was a first for Audubon. But Alison Holloran, Audubon Rockies’ director, already aligned with Johnson, faced the challenge and costs of managing the small sanctuary. So, a cooperative model made sense. “The ranch is a refuge for birds and wildlife in that area,” she said, “and I knew we could manage it better with the tool of livestock grazing.”
Holloran was not referring to the Old West, freewheeling style of running cattle herds that has devastated landscapes, degraded waterways, and decimated wildlife populations. Instead, rangeland ecologists use managed grazing (also called rotational grazing, holistic grazing, and regenerative grazing) for habitat management.
With the lease in hand, Lorenz and his partner Adrienne Larrew relocated their small-scale, pasture-based operation, Corner Post Meats, onto Audubon’s Kiowa Creek preserve. The mixed woodland-grassland savanna was ideal food for their cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens. Lorenz and Larrew used temporary electric fences to control their herding behaviors across the property.
Over time, the livestock helped to transform the land. Bunched together, the animals munched the overgrowth, their hooves trampled native grass seeds into the dirt and left behind divots for water, and their droppings enlivened the worms, fungi, and bacteria. The soils, sterilized by the fire, reactivated. Then, once the animals moved off to another site, the grasses had time to regrow and recover.
All the while, Holloran’s team monitored the property to document new plant growth—shorter for the ground nesting birds and taller for shrub species, for example. Change did not happen overnight, but their bird surveys documented significant recovery.
Vesper sparrows, lark sparrows, and other ground nesting birds began returning to breed at Kiowa Creek. At the edges of Ponderosa forests, insect-eating western bluebirds and pygmy nuthatches were joined by a pair of Northern Goshawks, an elusive bird of prey. The fluting song of iconic western meadowlarks broadcast the news.
Skillfully and intentionally managed grazing is essential to saving critical and endangered grassland bird habitats.
For Audubon, this was proof of concept for conservation ranching as a solution to the bird crisis. Despite through-the-roof conservation spending, bird populations across the American prairies have dropped by more than half since the 1970s.
Although it is indisputable that livestock can cause significant negative environmental impacts, the flip side could also be true: Skillfully and intentionally managed grazing is essential to saving critical and endangered grassland bird habitats.
Meanwhile, in return for its efforts, Corner Post earned the right to use Audubon’s seal with the phrase “raised on bird-friendly land” on its products. It was the beginning of a new paradigm, one that blurred the lines between two groups—ranchers and environmentalists—that have traditionally stood in each other’s way. It proposed that food production could work in support of, and even enhance, conservation outcomes for birds. And it pointed to a potential for tying grazing directly to the fate of birds on ranchlands throughout the U.S.
Audubon’s Bird Friendliness Index—its metric for evaluating birds’ response to habitat management has documented progress. The first 35 Audubon-certified ranches in the Northern Great Plains studied from 2016–2019 showed a significant increase over conventional ranchlands, with bird abundance on those lands improving by an average of 35 percent. “What we’re clearly seeing is that our protocols are producing more birds,” Johnson said.
Granted, cattle are not an ideal substitute for the wild ruminants that sustained a symbiotic relationship between animals and the land, regenerating nutrients over millennia. Some ecologists are skeptical that cattle alone heal the plains—and worry that their dominance may even represent another, harmful form of monoculture.
Jennifer Molidor, senior food campaigner from the Center for Biodiversity, urges caution when it comes to proposing cattle grazing as a “solution” to biodiversity loss. “Even ‘well-managed’ ranches have serious impacts on water resources, habitats, and species extinction crises,” she said. And she warns of confusing correlation with causation.
“We have this baked-in view that cattle are bad for the environment, but the data we’re collecting shows that we’re moving in the right direction. The lands have more birds than they did before we were there.”
“There are a lot of caveats,” Bennett from the Smithsonian agreed. While cows can play a beneficial role in maintaining or improving ecosystem function on native prairies, they have no place in the rainforest. “In the Amazon, there may be no way to have bird-friendly beef that the bird conservation community can support.”
Johnson insists that Audubon’s focus is solely on the places where grazing is compatible with grassland habitats. And he bristles at blanket proposals that the best solution is to remove all the cows. “No one asks the next question, then what?”
Still, Audubon is not in the business of defending all cattle or all grazing. Many environmental variables feed into the Bird Friendliness Index scores—from precipitation to invasive plants—and it is still being validated outside of the Great Plains. Also, not every ranch has experienced the same level of success, Johnson told me. The key is tracking the data over time; every ranch is evaluated every two years to see how the grassland bird community responds. In the aggregate, that model seems to be working.
“We have this baked-in view that cattle are bad for the environment,” he said. “But the data we’re collecting shows that we’re moving in the right direction, the lands have more birds than they did before we were there.”
Ultimately, it may be a moot point whether or not cattle are the best tool for the job. Of the surviving grasslands, 85 percent are privately owned, and much of that is already tied up in cattle production. Moreover, to have real impact, conservation efforts must match the scale of the grasslands themselves—and that means shifting the focus onto working lands.
As Johnson put it: “Private landowners have to be a part of the solution.”
Bennett from the Smithsonian shares this perspective for one simple reason. “There are simply not enough protected areas on the planet to conserve the diversity that we want to conserve,” she said. “So, we have to do conservation and landscapes where people are dependent on those landscapes to live, to make money, to have sustainable communities.”
Bennett is one of the leaders of the Bird Friendly Coalition, a scientist-led initiative to establish more sustainable agricultural practices that support global biodiversity. What began as a certification program for shade-grown coffee in 2000 has now branched off into production standards forr maple syrup, rice, and now, bird-friendly beef.
And while private enterprise initiatives like these can smack of greenwashing, many conservationists see it differently. As coalition member and senior director at Center for Avian Population Studies at Cornell, Amanda Rodewald wrote to me by email, “We can turn the dial and improve practices in ways that provide meaningful benefits to birds, but we also have to be realistic and not allow perfect to become the enemy of good.”
The Conservation Ranching Initiative is a long-term agreement with private working ranches built on grazing management plans customized for each property. So, relationship building is a major part of Audubon’s investment. In fact, the first benchmark for Audubon’s partnership with Panorama was to get buy-in from all of its independent beef producers.
Last April, Johnson walked through the golden senescent grasses on Hutchinson Organic Ranch in north-central Nebraska for the first time. He was joined by owner Dave Hutchinson and Kay Cornelius, the general manager of the grass-based cattle company Panorama Organic.
Panorama Organic, Wyatt DeVries
Hutchinson is one of the pioneers of Panorama, which was founded in 2002 by a group of ranchers who opted out of the commodity feedlot system. His family’s 5,000-acre ranch is on the Central Flyway, one of the country’s migration superhighways over the Great Plains, and it was a prime property for Audubon to secure in the deal.
Hutchinson was one of the most reluctant about signing up for Audubon’s certification when Cornelius said that he would need to allow the team’s biologists onto his land for routine monitoring. “They better shut the gates,” she recalled Hutchinson saying.
But meeting Johnson last spring eased all his apprehensions. “He’s really in tune,” Hutchinson told me. “He knows that if you don’t have good grazing practices, then you wouldn’t have all the birds.”
As the son of a state soil conservationist, Hutchinson is a proud steward in the mold of Leopold’s “farmer as conservationist.” The Sandhills region is a delicate ecosystem of mixed grass prairie anchoring waves of sand dunes so tall Hutchinson told me you need a horse to climb up some of them. No chemicals or heavy machinery touch his fragile soils. “We’ve been ahead of the game for years,” Hutchinson said.
With his daughter, Sarah Drenth, they rotationally graze bison, cattle, goats, and chickens, moving them after just three to five days on average. Often less. Then, they parade the animals onto new pastures to allow the first to rest and recover for up to a year. “We leave a lot of grass by moving them,” Drenth told me.
On the Great Plains, large ranching operations like Hutchinson Organic serve as a bulwark to the wholesale conversion of native prairieland. Lands are being plowed up for corn, soybeans, and wheat at an average of four football fields per minute. The disturbed virgin soil causes the carbon stores, long secreted underground, to escape into the atmosphere.
“Just between 2000 and 2013, the conversion equates to nearly 300 million car emissions,” Johnson said. “That’s what happens when we lose ranchers.”
This expansion on croplands, often onto marginally productive lands, fragments habitat and devastates Monarch butterflies, waterfowl and other wildlife. Conversion is the smoking gun of the precipitous bird losses over the past 50 years, according to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative.
On the Great Plains, large ranching operations like Hutchinson Organic serve as a bulwark to the wholesale conversion of native prairieland.
The Sandhill’s arid climate and unstable soils have safeguarded it from rampant row crop agriculture, the number one cause of the disappearing grasslands. (“It’s really numbers one through eight, to be honest with you,” Johnson told me.) But since the 1970s center-pivot irrigation tapping into the underground water reserves of the Ogallala Aquifer have brought more corn and alfalfa farming to the region.
The immediate threat to Hutchinson Organic is Nebraska Public Power’s plans for new power lines that Hutchinson fears will chew up the big bluestem, Indiangrass, buffalo grass, green needle grass, and other native grasses. He is relieved to have the power of Audubon on their side.
“We like their philosophy because they see the whole picture,” he said, calling the relationship like a marriage. His daughter, Drenth, is hoping to leave the land to her two young daughters.
By August, even after a summer of record drought, thick swells of deep green grasses undulated across the ranch. It was hard to tell that they’ve been grazed at all, although Hutchinson told me that he just moved the cattle off the pasture that morning. The difference, he said, is grazing the grasses at the right time for the right amount of time to develop thick and deep root masses that hold moisture in the soil.
“Seeing is believing,” he said.
But lush pastures can tell only a sliver of the story. Tales from ranchers of the ecological health and biodiversity on their lands have long encountered deep skepticism. Strong scientific data is necessary to flesh out the details. So, Audubon is working to validate these observations by collecting evidence, ranch by ranch.
The Bird Friendliness Index provides the snapshots. Biologists evaluate each property, noting targeted grassland bird species, and assign a score to certify the land as bird-friendly. The goal is to increase that number by shifting land management practices, such as the timing and intensity of grazing or hay mowing, for example. The idea is that over time, the score reflects changes in bird population numbers and communities.
But Audubon has determined that even rigorous bird monitoring is not enough. Along with vegetation and water infiltration tests, the program has added baseline soil monitoring to include biological activity and carbon in the soil. This will take time. “Three to five years from now, we’re going to have solid measures of how soil carbon is changing on all of our ranches,” Conservation Ranching Initiative director Chris Wilson said.
Ultimately, Audubon will know it’s all working when the downward trajectory off grassland bird populations starts to climb. By changing management with specific outcomes for birds across their ranges, this goal is in sight.
“Grassland bird species are going to tell us how we are doing,” Wilson told me.
“Three to five years from now, we’re going to have solid measures of how soil carbon is changing on all of our ranches.”
Hutchinson catalogs the birds that frequent and live on his ranch, telling me about how the resident greater prairie chicken, a threatened species, are so numerous here that ecologists capture them for repopulation efforts in Kansas and Iowa. The meadows and artesian springs on the property provide stopover sites for migrating Whooping cranes, green-winged teal and other water birds.
But soon, he’ll have his first Bird Friendliness Index score to back up over 30 years of personal observations. Hutchinson may not subscribe to the science of climate change, but he’s happy to adopt Audubon’s management plan to benefit birds on his lands. Bennett from Smithsonian pointed out to me that birds are apolitical, so they provide a universal way to mobilize people of all stripes to work toward complex environmental goals.
In working individually with cattle ranchers, the challenge is to meet them wherever they are and shift their agricultural practices toward increasing biodiversity and sustainability. For some, like Hutchinson, it may take only small tweaks. For others, it involves weaning off of pesticides or fertilizer or eliminating continuous grazing, more significant changes that might face resistance.
In all, Cornelius anticipates that it will take three years for all of Panorama’s ranchers to reach full certification and become 100 percent bird-friendly. For its part in the bargain, Audubon is invested in making sure that this works economically as well as environmentally for all of its ranching partners. Can it?
The premise of bird-friendly beef is that by buying Audubon’s certified products, consumers can help to restore the prairies, save birds, and other wildlife while also building soil health.
Called market environmentalism, this idea is being championed by Patagonia, General Mills, and other companies. It rests on the appealing but unproven idea that by choosing products that do right by the land (identified with an eco-seal), everyday eaters can influence supply chains through the retail market. And ultimately food production will become more sustainable. “Vote with your fork” writ large.
Johnson is convinced that the consumer market can underwrite habitat preservation for birds. “There’s a real power in the marketplace to drive conservation,” Johnson said. “I think that that’s where we really can start to turn the tide on grassland loss.”
But, to achieve this goal, it has to reach a certain scale. That’s where Panorama comes in to launch Audubon’s certification program nationally, and in turn, fuel more conservation work by more cattle ranchers on more lands.
As the largest national brand of domestic organic grass-fed beef, Panorama Organic is already the biggest player in a tiny but runaway meat category. For the first half of 2021, growth in organic beef sales outpaced the entire beef sector, up an eye-popping 32 percent compared to 2019, according to Chris Dubois, protein expert at the market research firm IRI. Demand for grass-fed, meanwhile, is tracking at 50 percent growth compared to pre-pandemic figures.
“There’s a real power in the marketplace to drive conservation. I think that that’s where we really can start to turn the tide on grassland loss.”
Both organic and grass-fed, the Panorama brand is in prime position to hit it big. But the meat case is a highly competitive food category marked by label confusion. For Cornelius, the Audubon partnership provides an extra edge in a market rife with unverified claims.
“I’m fighting for shelf space with product that says, ‘Product of the USA,’” she said, because in reality shoppers don’t realize that most grass-fed beef in the case is actually imported.
So, the Audubon seal provides the brand with an easy-to-understand differentiator, one that boils the hazy, complex terrain of ecological science down into an easy-to-read bird icon. It also resolves the brand’s conundrum of how to communicate to shoppers the latest buzzword in sustainability: regenerative.
“To me it was the answer to the big fuzzy regenerative ag piece that we were missing,” Cornelius said. She told me that Panorama chose Audubon’s certification program over the Regenerative Organic Certified label because of the rigorous science behind the Bird Friendliness Index and the strength of the organization’s reputation. (The Savory Institute, often targeted for making outsized claims for the benefits of cattle grazing, also recently launched a regenerative certification seal.)
Panorama beef is raised in eight Midwest and Western states on certified organic ranches, meaning that the producers don’t routinely use antibiotics or apply synthetic substances (with some exceptions). The organic pastures are important for grassland birds because many species feed insects to their young, and pesticides are also a cause of bird declines.
Each operation is also animal welfare certified by the Global Animal Partnership as pasture-raised. These certifications add up to retail prices $2–3 more per pound than conventional ground beef. Along with long-term contracts, this premium delivers a stable, guaranteed market for Panorama ranchers.
The reality is that ranchers adopt only practices they can afford, and the Conservation Ranching certification costs them nothing but time.
Colorado rancher George Whitten is a veteran bird-friendly-certified producer who says that the seal has real value in the marketplace. “Our customers don’t care about organic, but they love our certification with Audubon,” he told me.
Whitten recalls that in the 1990s, Audubon sued him for grazing San Juan Ranch livestock on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in southern Colorado. “That’s how far Audubon has come around,” he said. He is wary of the fact that Panorama Organic is owned by global meat giant Perdue Farms since he has strived to stay out of the conventional beef business.
But he trusts this niche meat brand, which like subsidiaries Niman Ranch and Coleman Natural, focuses on humane animal welfare and strong farmer networks. Whitten said that as his biggest customer, Panorama’s terms make it easy for him to earn a living. ”I can sell a truckload to Panorama quicker than I can sell a ribeye to a lady at the farmers’ market,” he said.
The reality is that ranchers adopt only adopt practices they can afford, and the Conservation Ranching certification costs them nothing but time. Audubon also provides cost-sharing, training, and other incentives.
With the Panorama deal in hand, the Conservation Ranching Initiative could improve land management practices on about 3.5 million acres.
From Audubon’s standpoint, this method is far cheaper than other strategies. Compared to the old way of protecting bird habitat, the Conservation Ranching Initiative turns out to be a bargain. On average, Johnson told me that grassland conservation typically costs the organization about $80 per acre. But enlisting ranchers to handle the day-to-day management on these lands, Audubon’s program costs drop to $1.35 –$1.40, an acre. “Soup to nuts.”
“Maybe it’s because I didn’t come up through the ranks as a biologist,” Johnson said, “but I thought the environmental community didn’t care about their bottom line.” With this program, ranchers’ livelihoods are one of the priorities. Keeping them in business keeps them on the land.
Bird-friendly beef ties improved farming practices directly to market opportunities and, potentially, increased profits. With certification, ranchers are rewarded by earning top dollar for their beef sold with the Audubon seal. In principle, it eliminates the environmental shortcomings of conservation programs like the federal Conservation Reserve Program, where once the payment incentives end after 10 or 15 years, farmers are likely to rip up the land for money-making row crops. Audubon’s market-based program, ideally, is self-sustaining. In theory, as the seal becomes more recognizable, profits should only grow.
With the Panorama deal in hand, the Conservation Ranching Initiative could improve land management practices on about 3.5 million acres—an area surpassing Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon combined.
National Audubon Society
“If the market can drive the program, it’s a far more efficient way to deliver grassland conservation at scale,” Johnson said. Funded by Audubon’s philanthropy arm, it could grow to 10-12 million acres at an annual cost of $10 – $12 million.
Audubon is not charging Panorama for the use of the Audubon seal, and there is no revenue sharing arrangement. “One day Harvard Business School may do a case study on how dumb Marshall is,” Johnson quipped, “but it’s by design.” The arrangement creates a firewall between the high standards of the program and what’s happening with any individual ranch on the ground.
The scale of Conservation Ranching has exceeded Audubon’s projections. “We’re on the precipice of mainstreaming market-based conservation,” Johnson told me. The potential to increase market exposure is high with Audubon bird-friendly beef in the pipeline to 320 retail outlets in spring 2022.
“If the market can drive the program, it’s a far more efficient way to deliver grassland conservation at scale.”
Johnson has already received a deluge of offers from dozens of other companies seeking to have their own supply chains certified through Audubon. Given the amount of beef that moves through the market, capturing more brands, restaurants, and retailers translates into more ranchlands enrolled, certified, and managed according to bird-friendly standards.
This voluntary program offers an alternative to federal mandates or tax-payer funded programs to address climate change. It also works towards the Biden Administration’s land conservation goal to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and water by 2030.
But market-based conservation raises deeper questions when the lion’s share of resources already flow to predominantly white landowners. “As we’ve seen with other market-based solutions, like carbon markets, they can be both ineffective and inequitable,” said Molidor from the Center for Biodiversity.
Through federal, state and local programs—from the Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program to conservation easements and cost-sharing projects—U.S. ranchers have access to a wealth of resources and technical support, which also increase the value of those lands. When the vast majority of those landowners are white, programs like Audubon’s may further entrench an ongoing land access crisis—soaring prices that thwart the efforts of tribal nations, farmers of color, young farmers, and others to own land.
Audubon is reckoning with inequities on several levels, including its own slaveholder namesake. When it comes to Conservation Ranching, two ranches owned by Indigenous people in South Dakota are enrolling in the program. And in Montana, a partnership with the Blackfeet Nation is a work in progress involving planning workshops and infrastructure inventories to address tribal needs. In Texas, the organization is reaching out to historically underserved farmers and ranchers.
When the vast majority of those landowners are white, programs like Audubon’s may further entrench an ongoing land access crisis—soaring prices that thwart the efforts of tribal nations, farmers of color, young farmers, and others to own land.
Johnson recognizes the embedded inequities along with the risks of embracing the regenerative mantle. “I share a concern about regenerative agriculture because a lot of it is not based on the bigger picture,” Johnson said, referring to the focus on grazing’s potential to capture soil carbon. “And I think it sets us up for a regenerative ag bubble, where there are too many promises, not enough data and that bubble could burst.”
“What a tragedy that would be,” he continued, “because the principles of regenerative agriculture tie back to traditional ecological knowledge, which was refined, researched, observed, and implemented by Native people.”
In his vision, Audubon’s conservation ranching initiative is nothing short of transformative. By shifting food production toward more environmental practices that are supported by consumer markets, the food supply can become more sustainable for all eaters. “If it works and it’s good for the soil, it’s good for birds, and it’s good for biodiversity, why aren’t our kids [in schools] eating this?”
Johnson’s own Audubon origin story dates back to when he was still a college student. On an early spring day, his friends dragged him out of bed to a farm in northern Minnesota to witness the mating ritual of the greater prairie-chicken. To avoid startling this short-tailed type of grouse, the group had to arrive before sunrise. In the chilled dim of dawn, Johnson folded his six-foot-two frame to crouch behind the bird blind and peered out toward the open short-grass meadow to wait.
At daylight, the annual spectacle of males performing their exuberant display, fanning their mottled brown feathers began, and he watched from 15 feet away. They pattered their feet like a drum roll while the yolk-colored sack at their throats uttered low toots like the sound of blowing over the mouth of a beer bottle. They tussled, fluttered, and fought.
But what struck him most was that beyond the lek—the grassy center stage for the prairie chickens’ performance—there were cows browsing in the distance. In that moment, he fell for the wonder of this “charismatic, loud, and flashy species” flourishing in a human-managed landscape.
It was similar to the same images in the book of landscape paintings from the Hudson River School he picked up as a kid. “There’s always a bird element and a wildlife element,” he said. “It’s a dynamic system that works together and humans are a part of it.”
Johnson has built a career building on the vision that conservation and agriculture not only work hand in hand but can reinforce one another in a beautiful way. For decades, industrialization and homogenization has worked in opposition to conservation efforts. Environmental goals, seemingly, could come only at the expense of productivity.
But that landscape has changed with an ecological mindset in the food system. It is not one or the other, but about managing the relationships within ecosystems that cannot exclude humanity.
“There’s always a bird element and a wildlife element. It’s a dynamic system that works together and humans are a part of it.”
The big question is, what practices can bring about positive changes for environmental health that affect wildlife, climate, and human well-being?
Two years after the bobolinks first fledged at Stone Barns, I checked in with Algiere. The farm functions as a working holistic system where pigs are the edible subjects for agroforestry studies, laying hens trail the sheep for multi-species grazing experiments, and the compost operation is integral to the whole high-functioning system. Meanwhile, farm teams harvest heirloom vegetables and pasture-raised meats, linking ecology with food production.
Algiere calls it “live agroecological science.”
Since 2019, his team is conducting a collective research study of the whole operation that includes monitoring soil carbon, water quality, insects, plants, and birds. “It’s not a clean lab,” Algiere said. “Not the kind of science that we’re used to, and we’re creating it as we go.”
Based on the data, they are learning the methods that best restore balance and health on the farm as a whole. But in the complex natural system called agriculture, so much is invisible.
And so, the birds help to tell the story.
In the old hayfield where cattle grazed, the bobolinks arrived again and fledged 10 young last summer. They were joined by three more grassland specialists, eastern meadowlarks, Savannah sparrows, and kestrels. From the trees fitted with bird boxes at edges of the fields, bluebirds and tree swallows darted out for insects.
“I was pretty shocked at the speed of the response in the bird populations,” Goodwin, Stone Barns’s deputy director of ecology, said. “We saw almost immediate responses to the change in management.”
Every other measure—plant abundance, pollinators and insects, water holding capacity, and soil organic matter—showed increasing stability, diversity, and complexity on these lands.
“If we can physically see change in a human time frame, there’s a lot we can’t see,” Algiere said. And although insects are valid bioindicators (as are the soil microbes), the birds are the most eye-catching centerpiece of nature’s intricate web, tied to our own survival.
Perhaps, then, it’s no accident that bird watching has soared during the pandemic. Or that eBird, an app that crowdsources sightings from people around the world topped one billion observations.
It’s not only that birds’ colors, songs and flight are enchanting. Or that they provide valuable ecosystem services from free insect control and pollination to fertilizer in the form of “poop rain” from the tens of billions of migrating birds each spring and fall.
In a time of crisis with accelerated climate change and biodiversity loss, avifauna are pointing the way forward. At Stone Barns, on the Great Plains and across the west, the best ecological practices for birds appear to be the best practices for land, biodiversity, and even climate. In a world of slippery and hard-to-prove environmental claims, birds are proving to be our north star.
After journeying throughout the globe, birds are the great connectors, the time travelers, and messengers of our fate. As the field researcher and nature writer Scott Weisendaul notes in his book, A World on the Wing: “Birds are the sentinels and bellwethers, the victims of our follies—but also, if we are heedful of their needs, guides to a more sustainable future for ourselves as well.”
Melissa Hemken contributed reporting.