Beef is best for birds, fits conservation

Birds and cattle are two compatible species.

Certain bird species depend entirely on grasslands of the northern great plains and many are in serious state of severe decline, said Tim Sopuck, head of Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corp., which is working on 400,000 acres in co-operation with producers.

Grassland birds vary in what they want in habitat from short grass to bush.

“Grazing is important to create that mosaic of habitat,” he said at the Canadian Beef Industry conference held in Calgary.

That message is not being conveyed to the public.

“We are losing grasslands and there are a lot of environmental impacts and a lot of people don’t understand that. Conservation and beef production in the northern great plains is an environmental benefit contrary the view the public has,” he said.

The modern landscape of the great northern plains is a checkerboard fragmented with annual cropping that has consequences to the environment. Grasslands are lost and may never return.

“The last couple decades have been absolutely brutal on grassland birds and the habitats they depend on. It has also been a very brutal time for your industry,” he said.

In the last four decades there has been almost a 70 percent decline in grassland birds driven out by habitat loss due to annual cropping.

New technology makes cropping possible in new areas and the ethanol mandate in the United States supports more farming to grow more corn.

There is a lot of engagement between beef producers and conservation groups who face criticism that cattle on the land is bad for the environment.

Agriculture and rural communities understand the story but it is a harder tale to tell the rest of the world what efforts are underway when resources are limited to spread the word about the connection between cattle, habitat protection and biodiversity.

“Birds and beef may be the best allies,” he said.

“The forces that are anti-beef are way, way ahead of us right now. The great plains and temperate regions are especially suited to beef and birds message,” he said.

However, there are bits of good news. There is an appetite among some conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited Canada, World Wildlife Fund and Audubon Society U.S. to form more partnerships with farmers to protect land.

However there are limited resources in the conservation community to take on this challenge. More money is needed for on the ground projects as well as promotion There is still a bit of reluctance on the beef industry side to embrace a strategic relationship with the conservation groups because of past bad experiences.

He suggests beef raised on the great plains should be promoted as an environmentally friendly product. He also said groups should not wait for the perfect plan but form a strategic relationship now.

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