Eating a burger might not seem like an act of conservation, but beef production, or more specifically cattle grazing, now has a place of significance in one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems. North America’s temperate grasslands are disappearing faster than the rainforest, and cattle farming could help stop this decline.
The Great Plains of North America was once an expanse of connected spaces where bison roamed freely. Bison would graze certain areas bare, which benefited some species, and would graze more lightly in other areas, which benefited other species. This grazing created heterogeneity on the prairies, which in turn increased biodiversity. It also stimulated the growth of native grasses, and helped keep the surrounding forests from encroaching on the plains.
Manitoba’s tallgrass and mixed grass prairies have declined by more than 99% since 1970, and the Plains Bison are virtually gone. As more and more of the bison’s old stomping grounds are cultivated or populated by humans, other species that rely on these biodiverse ecosystems are also rapidly disappearing.
“There are a lot of highly endangered species in the Great Plains,” says Christian Artuso of Bird Studies Canada and Nature Manitoba board member. “Often with more widespread species, the prairie subspecies is extinct or endangered. There was a Plains Grizzly in southwestern Manitoba, for example, which disappeared from the province sometime between 1850 and 1920.” The habitat is too limited or too fragmented to support area-sensitive species such as the now extirpated Long-billed Curlew.
Grassland birds in particular are highly vulnerable. They are one of the fastest and most consistently declining group of birds in North America, with about one-third of all grassland species on the Watch List (maintained by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative). While pesticides, climate change, and other factors contribute to this decline, the primary problem for these birds is grassland fragmentation and loss of habitat.
Many of the grasslands that still exist in Manitoba are actively grazed pastures, where cattle mimic the ecosystem process required for the prairie to remain prairie. But since crop lands tend to be much more profitable and easier for farmers to manage, more and more pastures are being ploughed up and cultivated.
“It takes a couple of weeks to destroy a grassland, and once it’s gone it’s almost impossible to get it back,” Artuso says. “In the past ten years the market pressures for farmers in Manitoba to convert to crop land have been enormous. With science and the development of new cultivars, corn can now be grown in more places. We’ve also been in a really wet period for 10-15 years, which furthers the potential to grow crops in areas that would have historically only been good for cattle pasture.”
In addition in parts of southern Manitoba conservation subsidies are often no longer enough to compete with the expansion of gas and oil in the area (which is part of the Bakken Oilfield).
Artuso sits at the Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Beef, and was a representative at the Global Roundtable in Banff in October, 2016. He says, “It is absolutely essential that we hang on to every bit of grassland we still have, and the only realistic way we can do that is to make cattle farming profitable.”
In South America the Alianza del Pastizal (The Pasture Alliance) has been working with local cattle farmers to develop a registered label for bird-friendly beef. After 11 years of collaboration, the Pampas grassland of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay has seen a very positive impact on birds, and has engaged many local cattle producers.
Although in Manitoba we are still a long way from establishing a model like the Alianza del Pastizal, we can find best practices for using cattle grazing to benefit threatened grassland species in Manitoba. “What we’re trying to do is find ways to work with cattle ranchers to make sure they’re raising cattle in a way that ensures grassland birds thrive,” Artuso says. “In the long run, I’d love to find a way to allow the consumer to support extinction prevention by simply going to the supermarket and choosing a particular product, but there is a lot of work to be done to get to that point.
Artuso says if more people bought beef raised in tandem with conservation efforts it would be extremely beneficial. In the Canadian prairies, in fact, it is essential for the long-term health of the grasslands. He says he hopes using cattle grazing as a conservation tool can help stop the rapid decline of Manitoba’s at-risk ecosystems.
Although there is a confusing array of terms such as grass-fed and grass-finished beef, there is not yet a Manitoba label specifically directed at the conservation of threatened grassland species. But there are other ways you can support the pilot projects that are paving the way. “Right now you can donate to Bird Studies Canada, Nature Manitoba, Nature Saskatchewan or Manitoba’s IBA program,” he says. “You can get involved in monitoring grassland birds through the IBA program, and you can support a local producer or talk to your local producer about your concerns for grassland conservation. You just might find yourself engaged in a very eye-opening discussion.”
by: Lynsay Perkins
photos: Long-billed Curlew & Loggerhead Shrike: Christian Artuso