World Wildlife Fund emphasizes conservation and ranching partnerships
Sheridan – Following a recent reorganization of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Senior Program Officer for Ranching and Conservation Nancy Labbe said, “We are now set up around six goals. We found that with these goals, we can make impacts.”
Labbe noted that WWF’s new goals are to protect and restore species and their habitats; strengthen local communities’ ability to conserve the natural resources they depend upon; transform markets and policies to reduce the impact of production and consumption of commodities; ensure that the value of nature is reflected in decisions made by individuals, communities governments and businesses; and mobilize hundreds of millions of people to support conservation.
“My work with ranches revolves around goals to freeze the footprint of food and protect grasslands,” she said.
Labbe discussed WWF’s perspectives with the attendees of the First Annual Ranch Sustainability Forum on May 14 in Sheridan.
WWF has begun to focus on ranching in its conservation efforts because of the opportunity available.
“This is perhaps the greatest conservation opportunity we have left in the U.S.,” Labbe commented. “Conservation communities have done a good job working on forests and mountains, but they aren’t as advanced when it comes to grasslands.”
However, Labbe noted that the tall grass prairies important to WWF are cared for by ranchers daily, and partnerships make sense.
“If we go back 200 years, there were enormous expanses of temperate grasslands,” Labbe explained. “These grasslands were filled with large, grazing mammals, such as bison, pronghorn and elk, and these populations have been dramatically decreased for a variety of reasons.”
Looking at North America specifically, Labbe noted that 90 percent of the tall grass prairie has disappeared, and the remaining prairies are concentrated in the Northern Great Plains.
“About three years ago, we had a meeting and said we have to figure out a way to protect the grasslands, which are under immense pressure,” she said. “We looked at a map, and the light came on when we saw that 76 percent of the land is owned by ranchers and the 17 percent that is public land is mostly managed by ranchers through grazing leases.”
The 183 million acres provides opportunity for WWF to work with ranchers.
The seven percent of grasslands under tribal ownership also provides the chance for WWF to accomplish its goals, said Labbe, as tribal landholders seek reintroduction of animals.
Labbe marked both oil and gas development and cropland conversion as pending threats in destruction of grasslands.
“The Northern Great Plains is under immense pressure,” she said. “The problem with oil and gas is that it creates roads and pads, dissecting the large grasslands. We are trying to prevent that.”
She further noted that high commodity prices, coupled with federal subsidies, influence conversion of grasslands to cropland.
“With technology these days, we can grow crops where we couldn’t before,” Labbe explained. “The unintended consequence is that we are moving into the grasslands that many species depend on for viability.”
“The good news is, we have really intact areas of grasslands still,” Labbe said. “There is about 42 million intact acres, with 74 percent private ownership and 18 percent public ownership.”
The principles of sustainable ranching work hand-in-hand with the goals of WWF, especially since private land ownership is a major factor.
“If we can keep ranchers viable on the land, then we will be less likely to plow that land under and develop it,” she explained. “We can bring market forces, to include economic and social viability, with sustainable ranching.”
Labbe also noted that ranchers and WWF share similar values that help to accomplish the goals of both.
“The idea of generational transfer is important to us because it provides the knowledge base,” said Labbe, noting that, as ranchers transition between generations, the years of knowledge and understanding about the land are also passed on. “They know how to managed the land through grazing.”
She marked efficient cattle and a balance of wildlife also as important.
“There are lot of places we agree – probably 80 percent of what we are passionate about,” Labbe added. “Let’s work on the 80 percent that we agree on and not worry about the rest.”