Conservation Beef is a business venture that began two years ago in a partnership between The Nature Conservancy's Compatible Ventures Group and the Artemis Wildlife Foundation. Brian Kahn, the former director of The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) Montana chapter came up with the idea in 1992 as he says, "I was frustrated at our inability to get a handle on how to control subdivisions in places like the Madison River Valley. And I kept thinking that we needed a way to get more resources to agricultural producers who were good stewards and who were interested in staying in agriculture." He approached Bill Weeks, who was at the time TNC's Chief Operating Officer, about his idea for developing a "conservation" beef product. Weeks, who had been responsible for establishing TNC's Center for Economic Development saw potential in such a program and suggested going to the Ford Foundation for research funding. Armed with data indicating that such a plan would yield considerable profit, Conservation Beef was formed as a limited liability company with The Nature Conservancy as a full partner.
Ranchers are eligible to participate in the Conservation Beef program by complying with land stewardship standards jointly developed by The Nature Conservancy of Montana and local ranch groups. The first step of the process is for the rancher to develop a plan specific to his or her property that deals with the maintenance of soil and water quality, riparian health and wildlife habitat. He or she then presents the proposal to a local ranch group and the Conservancy-appointed Stewardship Review Board. In the second step of the process, the rancher implements the plan and in collaboration with TNC, chooses to either accept a conservation easement or a phased transfer of development rights.
So far the program has four participating ranches in Montana's Madison Valley. The most salient innovations of the Conservation Beef program concern grazing practices and water management. Under TNC's basic guidelines for sustainable ranching, pastures should be grazed intermittently and only to levels appropriate for that time of year. Similarly, ranchers in the program are encouraged to use multiple sources of water in order to keep water levels at a healthy norm.
In return for applying environmentally sensitive management practices, Conservation Beef producers get a $400 down payment per animal, plus15 cents per pound above the market price on the date of the sale. In comparison, cattle producers who are not in the program could sell an 1100-pound yearling for $.65 per pound and would get about $715 per animal. Conservation Beef producers get $.80 per pound for a total of $880 per animalan increase of about 23 percent in price. In general, Conservation Beef markets its product to high-end restaurants and directly to consumers.
While Conservation Beef is exclusively supplied with cattle from private ranchers in Montana, the Nature Conservancy continues to explore possibilities of combining habitat conservation and sustainable ranching throughout the United States. Two such examples are the Red Canyon Ranch in Wyoming, and the Sycan Marsh in Oregon. Through such programs TNC endows local ranchers with the capacity to become private stewards of the land that is their livelihood.