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Billings County ranch gets bird-friendly habitat certification

A cattle rancher near Medora, North Dakota, is working to preserve bird dwellings through the Audubon Conservation Ranching program.

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Kim Shade's Meadowlark Beef brand can now carry the Audubon Certified bird-friendly seal.
Contributed / Anthony Hauck
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BILLINGS COUNTY, N.D. — The Shade Ranch near Medora recently received a Bird-Friendly Habitat Certification from the National Audubon Society. Beef produced on the ranch under its Meadowlark Beef brand can now carry a package label that recognizes product origin as lands managed for birds and biodiversity — the Audubon Certified bird-friendly seal.

The ranch is owned and operated by Kim Shade.

“I just wanted our ranch to be recognized as bird-friendly more than anything,” Shade said. “I try to be wildlife friendly as well as bird-friendly, and a friend of the prairie.”

He said he has been around prairie and ground nesting birds his entire life. His strong passion for protect their habitat has led him to research ways to sustain their numbers.

“They are part of the ecology and very important to preserve because our prairie ground nesting birds, I guess, are some of the species that are really suffering losses in the last 30-40 years — mostly because of loss of habitat,” Shade said. “More and more prairie is being plowed up and put into modern agriculture, which is not good for prairie birds.”

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Audubon Conservation Ranching is working to stabilize grassland bird populations through partnerships with ranchers, the group's Communications Manager Anthony Hauck said. Ninety-five percent of grassland birds live on ranchland, he added.

Shade has been operating his ranch about 15 miles south of Medora for nearly 30 years, leaning his previous experience as a rancher in western Idaho.

“Some of the same birds that nest here nested in Idaho too, like the Western Meadowlark for sure and some other bird species that I enjoyed on my ranch,” Shade said.

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Nationwide, 99 ranches have been <i>Audubon Certified</i> bird-friendly.
Contributed / Anthony Hauck

He calls himself an amateur birdwatcher.

“It's not always about the bottom line,” Shade said. “In the ranching business, you've got to enjoy some of the little things in life.”

He works cattle on horseback to hear his favorite birds and avoid running over any nests. His degree in animal science and range management helped him on his journey to certification.

“I think an environment that's good for cattle is also good for the wildlife and the ecology,” Shade said.

In some areas, Shade’s cattle can be used as a habitat management tool by mimicking what bison did for thousands of years, Hauck said. Shade’s herd can be used to manipulate short plant communities which is ideal for species such as the Chestnut-collared Longspur and Upland Sandpiper. Other pastures are provided breaks from grazing, creating the taller vegetation preferred by Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Sharp-tailed Grouse.

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“I feel really blessed and privileged to be able to be a steward of the land,” Shade said. “So that's why I want to take care of it to the best of my ability.”

Those interested in Shade Ranch’s products that carry the Audubon Certified bird-friendly seal can find the Meadowlark Beef brand on Facebook.

“Consumers can have an impact by, you know, choosing products grazed on these Audubon certified lands as opposed to lands that are just not environmentally friendly,” Hauck said.

There are now seven ranches in North Dakota that have earned certifications through the program and 99 ranches nationwide, with about 2.7 million acres of bird-friendly habitat, he added.

Consistent monitoring of habitat and range production, bird populations, soil carbon, water infiltration, and soil health on the ranch will allow Shade and Audubon to adapt the habitat management plan and bird-friendly practices, if necessary, in the future, said Charli Kohler, Range Ecologist with Audubon Dakota.

Hauck said that a recently released report, State of the Birds 2022, showed grassland bird species populations have declined 34 percent since 1970.

“Grasslands are a threatened ecosystem, but through the work of private landowners like Kim Shade, there is mounting effort and growing awareness for keeping this habitat intact and thus stabilizing our declining grassland bird populations,” Hauck said. “Shade’s ranch, land ethos and bird-friendly nature are an ideal fit for the Audubon Conservation Ranching program.”

Ashley Koffler is a Killdeer, North Dakota native and Dickinson State University graduate, with a Bachelor’s Degree in writing, and minors in journalism and psychology. Formerly working in Community Affairs for Roosevelt Custer Regional Council for Development, her reporting focuses on Stark County and other rural municipality governments, community features, business and agriculture — among others.
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