What Do Birds and Cows Have in Common?

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May 08, 2016 | 18,020 views

Story at-a-glance

  • The Audubon Society is not just about bird-watching. Alison Holloran, executive director of Audubon Rockies, talks with me about their Conservation Ranching program
  • The goal of conservation ranching is landscape-scale conservation that also preserves the culture of ranching
  • Audubon works closely with ranchers in areas where the program is being piloted to learn about their issues and help them move to a premium market with their beef
  • The benefit of the Conservation Ranching program to consumers is the option to purchase food from animals that have been pasture-raised in a manner that promotes the health of the land and the Earth’s ecosystems

By Dr. Becker

Today I’m talking with Alison Holloran of the Audubon Society. Alison graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Management from West Virginia University (WVU) and obtained her Master of Science degree in Zoology and Physiology from the University of Wyoming.

Alison’s master’s research investigated the potential effects of gas and oil development on the greater sage-grouse on the Pinedale, Wyoming mesa.

After graduating from WVU, Alison served two years with the U.S. Peace Corps as a wild lands promoter in Honduras, Mexico.

Upon completion of her master’s degree, she went to work for the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, developing and executing a research plan to examine the potential effects of natural gas development on sage-grouse populations.

Alison has been with the Audubon Society for 14 years and is currently serving as the executive director of the Audubon Rockies.

The Audubon Society is Much More Than a Bird-Watching Group

The National Audubon Society is “all about conserving birds,” says Alison, and more specifically, the organization works to conserve habitat and large-scale landscapes through the lens of birds.

“Many people think we’re just a bird watching organization,” she explains, “but really, we do all our work through science, policy, and education.”

“When we work on, say, the sagebrush ecosystem,” she continues, “we work from D.C. all the way down to the state and local levels. We do education to promote the sagebrush steppe from kindergarteners all the way up to adults and senior citizens.”

“We also let science guide everything we do. Any policy decisions we make, any education choices we may make, we look to science to make our decisions.”

According to Alison, she sort of stumbled into the world of birds. While at WVU studying wildlife management, like most of her peers, she was interested in big game management – “manic megafauna,” so to speak. During that time, however, she did some internships working with birds.

“I started to fall in love and really realize how important birds are in the ecosystem,” explains Alison. “Actually, they really speak for the ecosystem.”

The old adage, ‘The canary in a coal mine’ is really true, according to Alison. “Birds tell us what’s going on in the landscape before any other critter out there.”

Once she started working with birds, one thing led to another, and the rest, as they say, is history!

Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Program

Alison is involved in an Audubon pilot program called Conservation Ranching, and I asked her to explain what that is, since it doesn’t seem at first glance that birds and ranching have much in common!

She explained that contrary to the perception many people have, there’s actually a strong connection between cows and birds. The Central Flyway in the very middle of the U.S. was once covered in great expanses of tall grass prairie, mixed grass prairie, and short grass prairie.

At that time, bison moved across that landscape, grazing heavily and moving on, creating diversity in the landscape. But that’s no longer happening.

The Audubon Society works with cattle ranchers to try to replicate the bisons’ influence on grasslands, because it maintained the health of the ecosystem. So Alison and others working on the Conservation Ranching program are collaborating with ranchers to bring back holistic grazing management.

“What we hope to accomplish is landscape-scale conservation,” says Alison, “keeping ranchers on the land and not letting it go to housing developments.”

Working Closely with the Ranching Community

I asked Alison what kind of reception Audubon receives from the ranchers, because it seems to me there could be a few stumbling blocks, since ranchers may not welcome conservation efforts.

Alison explained that the conservation and ranching communities aren’t necessarily adversaries, despite the perception many people have. Recently, Audubon received a foundation grant that has allowed them to really dig in and do their homework with ranchers.

They are able to sit down with ranchers in local communities and ask them things like, “What are your issues? What are you facing? Why do you think the ranching industry and the ranching community are struggling? Were do you feel the Audubon fits into this landscape in the management of cattle? Do you think we fit in, and how can we be a partner to you?”

Alison says for the past two years (since receiving the grant), it’s been a really interesting process. The ranching community has been very welcoming. “I haven’t been to one meeting where I felt like, ‘Whoa, I better run for my life,’ or anything like that,” she says.

The ranchers have been very open with Audubon in communicating the challenges they face. “We found they’re having a hard time getting their kids back on the ranch,” says Alison. “Ranching is hard. It’s very hard work for very little payoff, financially.”

Alison believes Audubon’s Conservation Ranching program can help out. While it’s true the program is asking ranchers to make changes in their grazing protocols that benefit local species or certain birds, part of the effort also involves trying to help ranchers move to a more premium market.

“You have organic,” says Allison. “You have non-GMO. But there really isn’t a stamp on any beef that says, ‘You’re doing good things for grasslands,’ or ‘You’re not only doing organic, you’re not only doing GMO-free, hormone-free, or whatever you want to call it, but you’re also doing something for the environment’.”

“Organic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for the environment,” she continues. “Hormone-free is good for you as a consumer. Eating the beef, you know you’re not eating any chemicals and hormones. But the habitat piece is missing. That’s what we’re trying to bring to the market and see the benefit to the rancher in higher prices for their beef.”

Conserving the Land, and Ranching Culture As Well

The Conservation Ranching program has been piloted the last two years in Missouri, and Audubon is definitely seeing results. “We’re seeing bird response on these ranges going from little diversity in birds up to higher abundance, and higher diversity,” Alison explains.

The program is also now piloting in Wyoming, South Dakota, Texas, and Colorado, and Alison and her colleagues are optimistic. “In all of our other programs,” says Alison, “such as our Sagebrush Ecosystem initiative and our Habitat Hero program, we see positive responses.”

According to Alison, it’s crucially important for Audubon to do their scientific due diligence in monitoring habitat variables so they can say with complete confidence that they’re doing good things on the land. Alison is especially excited about this particular program. “I think it has a lot of opportunity to not only help conserve our grasslands, but to help conserve ranching culture as well. Putting people and birds together is really exciting for me,” she says.

Healthy Ecosystems = Healthy Humans (for Generations)

I asked Alison to explain why Audubon’s programs should be important to people who may not be aware of the monumental environmental issues we’re facing.

“For the consumer, there is a healthy alternative,” explains Alison. “When you buy beef that has habitat sustainability, you know that our protocols will also have some animal husbandry protocols with them to see that the animal was treated fairly its whole life.”

“And you know that this cow is healthier than, say, a feedlot cow that’s been injected with hormones, and left at a feedlot for the last months of its life to finish out and fatten. In contrast, this cow you’re eating has been pasture-raised or grass-finished.”

Alison also believes consumers will appreciate knowing they’re doing something good for the environment. The meat they’ve purchased isn’t detrimental to grasslands. And they’re helping to conserve a way of life while at the same time promoting biodiversity and habitat diversity in the landscape.

“If we have healthy grasslands,” explains Alison, “we’ll have healthy ecosystems, which means healthy populations of people. You can’t have dirty air and dirty water and think our human population is going to cope with it well. We’re just not.”

Humans are, of course, part of the ecosystem, whether they’re aware of it or not. Alison wants to pull people back in and tell them “You’re part of this. If we have a healthy ecosystem, your children are going to be healthy, and so are your grandchildren.”

Healthy Food Animals = Healthy Pets

Taking this notion a step further, our pets will be healthy, too. That’s something I’m always promoting here at Healthy Pets - the importance of feeding happy, healthy prey or happy, healthy meat to our dogs and cats. It’s about creating healthy populations of animals that will ultimately become food for humans or pets, while simultaneously helping to conserve the environment and promote species diversity – and not just birds, but mammals as well.

Alison agrees. “Our protocols look at a fleet of birds or a group of birds to promote diversity. But another great thing about birds is that a lot of them act as umbrella species. “So if you’re helping the greater sage-grouse, for example, you’re also helping 350-some additional species of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and amphibians.”

Many thanks to Alison Holloran for chatting with me today about her exciting work with the Audubon Society. I’m looking forward to checking in with her again soon to see how the Conservation Ranching program is progressing!