Marshall Johnson, recently named vice president for Audubon’s conservation ranching initiative, is a millenial. “Which makes me skeptical, cynical and I live to tear down well-established traditions and institutions,” he said during a recent TED Talk in Fargo, North Dakota, where he also serves as executive director of Audubon Dakota.
Tearing down old assumptions may be what led him to an epiphany following his first conservation project upon taking the helm as Dakota director – and its only staff member. He had just completed his first conservation project with a somewhat unlikely partner, at least on the surface: a cattle rancher. “You don’t care about my cattle,” Johnson remembers the rancher telling him, “and I can’t keep track of all the LBBs out there – little brown birds.” The two shared a chuckle, but on the five-hour drive home, Marshall thought, “there’s more to this partnership that Audubon should have with ranchers. I´d better be concentrated and focused on his cattle and his bottom line. How can we develop something that can reward our ranchers and empower you to support ranchers and their ability to be climate solutions, to be environmental solutions to some of our biggest problems today?”
Eight years later, the answer has become Audubon’s Conservation Ranching initiative (ACR). Currently enrolling some 70 ranches and nearly two million acres in Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, California, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming, the program works with ranchers and a third-party verifier to certify their land as “bird friendly.” With an estimated 90 percent of North America’s grasslands owned or managed by ranchers, Johnson says ranchers, farmers and consumers must be a part of the solution to habitat loss and climate change.
“Let’s face it; the era of big conservation is over. You have to drive the outcomes for the next hundred years. And the market is the perfect place to do that,” he told his TED Talk audience of more than 2,500 people.
As part of the program, ranchers adopt “regenerative grazing practices” that mimic the grazing practices of historic bison herds that once roamed the plains. The techniques allow a variety of native grasses to grow and thrive by allowing pastures to rest and recover. That, in turn, provides habitat for imperiled grassland birds, whose numbers have declined by 50 percent over the past 100 years.
“Grasslands are a dynamic ecosystem,” Johnson said. “What you see is not what you get. If you see a prairie plant that is three feet tall, there is more than three to four times that beneath the surface, and that is where the magic happens. Those deep root systems can sequester more than five to 15 metric tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every year” per acre.
The program also requires that livestock be able to freely graze on open grassland, prohibits use of animal by-products or antibiotics in feed, prohibits use of feedlots, and includes monitoring for animal health and welfare. In return for their efforts, ranchers receive a premium price for their products, which bear Audubon’s “grazed on bird-friendly land” certification seal.
“So please,” Johnson asked the audience. “Put the power into your purchase. Do your research. Search out foods that are better for you and better for the land. Go out and shop and eat like the world depends on it.”
ACR-certified beef is currently available by subscription at BlueNestBeef.com, or visit https://www.audubon.org/where-buy-products-raised-audubon-certified-land.