Conservationists should promote benefits of cattle grazing to ecosystem health, biodiversity

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Source: Canadian Cattlemen’s Association

Grazing cattle are essential to the health of grassland ecosystems and endangered species protections and recovery and its high time the conservation community voiced this truth to their counterparts and the general public. This is one of the themes coming out of the 12th annual Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference held in Winnipeg recently. The conference, held every three years, brings conservationists together from across Canada to share ideas, research and project updates. More than 300 people attended the event themed “Working Landscapes.”

Tim Sopuck, chief executive officer with the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation (MHHC), has been working in conservation for four decades doing habitat and species projects with beef producers and land managers. The MHHC plays a key role in delivering Species At Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) projects in Manitoba. Sopuck told the audience that the conservation community and livestock producers must overcome past differences, past animosity, and work together to conquer perceptions that beef is bad for the environment. He clearly placed most of the weight of getting the message out onto the shoulders of the conservation community.

“What are we conservationists giving back in this relationship with livestock producers? It’s an asymmetric relationship right now,” he said.

Interestingly, at the CCA’s 2018 semi-annual meeting, the environment committee had guest speaker Tim Hardman, beef director, sustainable food, World Wildlife Fund U.S., speak on how cattle can contribute to biodiversity. Hardman’s presentation explained the importance of balance in an ecosystem and how some ecosystems, and the species within them, depend on grazers to properly manage the land for that balanced target. When this is done well, it can lead to great results, for the producer, the wildlife and the entire system.

Cattle producers understand the crucial role grazing cattle play in the health and biodiversity of grasslands. Conservationists know it too, and that in the Great Plains region the grazing livestock industry offers conservation groups the greatest gains from a strategic alliance with the industry, Sopuck noted. He stressed the importance of the conservation community in speaking up and publicly supporting grazing cattle on grasslands and the beef industry as a whole; and that support must come unconditionally and not just when cattle producers are in the room.

“Tell it from the perspective of conservation using your words. Support the social acceptance of beef cattle with independent communications and marketing noting the conservation benefits of cattle on grasslands,” he added.

Sopuck figures the conservation community can help develop cattle-friendly policy and advocate that eating meat is okay, beef is healthy and if it’s cow-calf on grasslands, also bird friendly and an enviro-choice product. His concluding call-out to the conservationists in the room proved poignant: “Let’s start by understanding who our friends are and act in ways that mean something to [producers]. And say it to your conservation colleagues, to your vegetarian friends and to consumers out there,” he said.

Christian Artuso with Bird Studies Canada echoed Sopuck’s comments in his presentation titled Conservation Grazing – The Last Hope for Grassland Species At Risk. “We need recognition at the conservation level on the prairies the critical role cattle play in the biodiversity of this region,” he said “And recognize the need to publicize this.”

The 2016 State of North America’s Birds report recognizes livestock grazing on well-managed grasslands as crucial to the protection of bird habitat. The report suggests that grassland policies in North America need support and strengthening in order to ensure producers can continue to practice sustainable livestock grazing and protect important breeding bird habitat. The 2016 report from the North American Bird Conservation Initiative – Canada (NABCI) found that grasslands in North America are under pressure from cropland expansion and residential development, activities which threaten both bird habitat and the ranches that maintain these important grasslands for cattle. The findings echo that of the 2012 State of Canada’s Birds report, which recognized cattle grazing as a positive practice that can help to preserve habitat for birds. The 2012 report also let Canadians know that their lifestyle choices can help grassland birds: “Including bison, beef and other range-fed meat in your diet encourages the retention of pasture land,” the 2012 Canadian report said.

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