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How Fast Food and Big Beef Are Helping Highs Plains Ranchers Save Dwindling Native Grasslands

By Calen Moore

Kelly Anthony, a cattle rancher in southwest Kansas, drives through his pasture, blaring a siren he uses to get the attention of the herd. As he flicks it on and off, the cattle surround the truck.

Cattle ranching has been Anthony's way of life for 25 years. Cattle ranches fuel the beef industry and the western Kansas economy. People like him also own much of the remaining native grasslands that once covered 71 million acres of the southern High Plains.

Now, 80% of those native grasslands in Kansas are lost, and cattle ranchers like Anthony could be the key to saving what’s left. A new program backed by conservation groups and the beef industry hopes to work with ranchers in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico to conserve and restore more land.

“I really think that ranchers as a whole are the best stewards of the land, because the capital requirement to be in the cattle business is so high, the biggest portion of that is land,” Anthony said.

The native grasslands lost out to profitable fields of corn and other crops, while also being crowded out by invasive species.

Anthony hops on his horse and rides in front of sloping hills to count his cattle. Just past the hills are acres of untouched native grasses vital for a variety of species, like pronghorn deer and grassland birds including the lesser prairie chicken.

The beef industry leaves a huge impact on the environment by consuming a lot of grain that is produced in ways that contribute to water loss and soil pollution. The cattle and process release a lot of greenhouse gasses.

That’s why some major beef purchasers like Burger King, with its 1,900 restaurants, are investing.

Cargill, Burger King and others said they’re taking part with the hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their beef supply.

Deborah Fleischer is president of Green Impact, a consulting firm that helps businesses with green initiatives. She said when large companies invest in green projects, they might also be prompted by benefits like improving their public image.

“I think it's beyond philanthropy for some of these bigger companies now and just part of their carbon reduction strategy,” Fleischer said.

Most of these companies have public goals of reducing carbon emissions by 2030 or sooner, and efforts like saving grasslands can help.

Whether it’s securing their beef supply or reducing carbon emissions, the investments from large companies can help conservation efforts.

Fleischer said beyond that, the companies also earn benefits like attracting younger employees.

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