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Farms Under Threat: Biodiversity and Agriculture

Many, if not most, wildlife species rely on private lands for habitat and foraging. AFT has embarked on a unique effort to map the agricultural and forested lands across the contiguous United States that help wildlife move daily and seasonally within their home ranges. Not only do these patches on the working landscape provide habitat and food, but they also facilitate the dispersal and genetic interchange between populations and protect biodiversity. Maintaining suitable habitat across a variety of land ownership types, land uses and spatial scales will be critical in halting the accelerated loss of biodiversity due to habitat loss and climate change. Agricultural lands can play a key role.

AFT’s Farms Under Threat initiative is currently collecting the datasets that will help us identify key wildlife habitat associated with agricultural lands. AFT plans to provide new, high-resolution, and spatially consistent data to help identify habitat patches and movement corridors that are associated with agricultural lands. This data will complement on-going regional analyses of resilient and connected landscapes that focus on preserving natural areas. This novel research will provide a powerful tool for targeting investments in land protection for wildlife conservation, so our committed landowners and conservation professionals can simultaneously protect biodiversity and conserve productive, versatile, and resilient farmland and ranchland for future generations.

Wildlife on the Working Landscape: Charting a Way for Biodiversity and Agricultural Production to Thrive Together

This white paper summarizes what researchers know about wildlife requirements, threats to biodiversity, the role that agricultural lands play, and what models and metrics can tell us about the capacity of agricultural lands to support wildlife habitat.

To launch this effort, AFT reviewed the literature and produced a background white paper, “Wildlife on the Working Landscape: Charting a Way for Biodiversity and Agricultural Production to Thrive Together.”

The paper finds:

Biodiversity loss is a major global threat. According to the World Economic Forum, the top five global risks with the greatest impacts are climate action failure, weapons of mass destruction, biodiversity loss (wildlife), extreme weather and water crises. The top five global risks that are most likely to happen are extreme weather, climate action failure, natural disasters, biodiversity loss and human-made environmental disasters.

Biodiversity loss is accelerating:  Out of the eight million known species of animals and plants worldwide, about one million are under threat of extinction.  In North America, bird populations have declined by 29 percent since 1970. In the U.S., more than 550 species are pending for consideration under the Endangered Species Act. Over 50 of these threated or endangered species are vital pollinators and wild honeybee populations have dropped 25 percent since 1990.

Agricultural lands can help reverse this trajectory. Up until now, agriculture has been one of the leading causes of wildlife endangerment (both through habitat loss and the use of harmful chemicals), but if farmers and ranchers adopt wildlife-friendly farming practices, they can become heroes of biodiversity conservation.

Ranchers play a key role in keeping rangelands healthy. During some part of the year, rangeland ecosystems are associated with 84 and 74 percent of the total number of mammalian and bird species, respectively, found in the U.S. About 77 percent of the non-federal rangeland in the contiguous U.S. (about 21 percent of the total land area in the 48 states) is in healthy condition and if owners improve their management on the remaining rangeland, they can restore these lands to relative health.

Much of our agricultural land already provides significant wildlife habitat. Forty-two percent of our agricultural lands are considered marginal and growing crops on this land is rarely a viable option. Soil limitations restrict their use mainly to pasture, rangeland, forestland or wildlife habitat. These lands hold great potential for improving wildlife habitat while still maintaining productive agricultural uses.

Agricultural lands can provide critical corridors through which wildlife can travel in watersheds. Some wildlife corridors may only be hundreds of feet in width and can include grassed terraces, hedgerows, in-field buffers, grassed waterways, field borders, windbreaks and shelterbelts, vegetated ditches and grass filter strips.

Crop and livestock producers can also use wildlife-friendly conservation practices to minimize indirect effects on wildlife. As a bonus, if farmers used a core set of wildlife-friendly regenerative practices (cover crops, conservation tillage, and nutrient management) on all U.S. cropland acres, it would sequester enough carbon to counter over 85 percent of U.S. agriculture’s current greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been tracking what works. For example, winter-flooded farmland fields can help wetland wildlife species; high-intensity, short-duration rotational grazing systems can benefit riparian areas; and establishing some grass in intensively farmed agricultural areas can provide a refuge. Since 2006, over 50 regional assessments of the effects of conservation practices on wildlife show that conservation practices can have huge benefits for wildlife (e.g. bobwhite breeding densities have increased by 70-75 percent in 14 states and total wild trout density increased by 59 percent in a Montana river).