Working Lands

A new approach for protecting grassland birds

Program will help grassland birds through cooperative efforts with ranchers.

Grasshopper Sparrows are a grassland species that will get much-needed help from the Audubon Conservation Ranching program. Photo: Heidi Cleven/Audubon Photography Awards

There are some landscapes that just feel like California, and Audubon Bobcat Ranch just outside of Davis is one of them. The landscape hosts a rich blend of important habitats, including blue oak woodland, native perennial grassland, annual grassland, seasonal wetland, and chaparral.

Walk down one of its dirt roads and you may spy a Golden Eagle flying overhead, and hear the song of Lark Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows emanating from the fields. Other great birds you might encounter include Lewis’s Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, Burrowing Owl, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, and Yellow-billed Magpie.

Audubon California acquired Bobcat Ranch in 2007 to demonstrate bird-friendly ranching practices, such as restoring native grassland, protecting spring-fed wetlands, and testing grazing practices that improve habitat.

Now, Audubon Bobcat Ranch is the first California ranch to participate in Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Program, which promotes grassland bird conservation through a market-based approach that encourages cattle ranchers to use a variety of bird-friendly practices on their lands. So far, the program has focused on the Great Plains, with fifty-nine participating ranches representing more than 800,000 acres across ten states.

“Being a part of the program lets us take what we’ve learned at Bobcat and through the Great Plains program, add the latest science on healthy soils and carbon sequestration, and provide incentives to ranchers to preserve open space through an innovative market-based approach,” says Meghan Hertel, Audubon California’s director of land and water conservation. “The plan is to learn how to make this program work in California, which is home to roughly 40 million acres of rangeland.”

The ultimate goal of the program is to stem the rapid decline of grassland birds. Population estimates for twenty-four species have decreased by more than 40% since 1968. This includes birds like the Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owl, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Western Meadowlark, among others.

The program also has the potential to use cattle grazing to help meet California’s ambitious climate goals by reducing emissions from cattle while simultaneously increasing the carbon sequestration potential of grasslands. At the same time, the approach would mimic the habitat benefits created historically by grazing herds of elk and other animals.

“Right now, we are testing this program on Bobcat Ranch, partnering with agencies and ranching groups to ensure this program works here in California—to benefit birds and other wildlife, create healthy soils, sequester carbon, and keep ranches in open space,” adds Hertel. “Given the success of these practices in the Great Plains, we are excited to begin partnering with other ranches in the near future.”

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