Ducks Unlimited is working with cattle producers to protect grassland-nesting habitat, thanks to a grant that will increase national recognition for the carbon storage benefit of native prairie grasslands. DU and its partners, including The Nature Conservancy, received the grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Innovation Grants program to develop a method for measuring and issuing carbon credits.

The method will provide ranchers in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota and South Dakota an opportunity to participate in voluntary carbon markets and earn an additional revenue stream for their operations. The credits are for carbon captured and stored in native prairie that is protected with conservation easements.

“The grant will allow us to pay grassland owners for carbon credits when they protect their grass from being converted to cropland, which would release the carbon stored in the native prairie soils,” said Randal Dell, DU regional biologist-environmental markets. “This pilot project will be the first time a methodology for avoiding grassland conversion will be submitted for review to the Verified Carbon Standard, the world’s leading program for generating verified carbon credits for voluntary markets. Crop producers and forest owners have had opportunities to sell carbon credits for some time, and now ranchers can be part of this market.”

Joe Fargione, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s North American region, agreed that ranchers should be rewarded in the same way for keeping their grassland intact. “Carbon credits for grassland protection will not only reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but they’ll also help keep ranchers, their way of life, and the people and wildlife they support healthy for future generations.”

This week Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced funding for DU’s and eight other large-scale greenhouse gas mitigation projects in 24 states. Grant recipients are required to provide matching funds—either cash or in-kind services. In addition to the CIG, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is providing additional funding through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program to eligible producers to implement conservation practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Over a five-year period, more than 500,000 acres of native rangeland were converted to cropland in just the Prairie Pothole Region of Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota. Threats to convert productive native grassland to cropland are expected to grow even stronger as global food demands increase. In rangeland areas, soil accounts for over 90 percent of the carbon storage. Converting native prairie to cropland results in an initial loss of 20 to 50 percent of the ground’s carbon stocks.

DU has been developing the methodology for estimating how many grassland acres are likely to be converted for other uses. “The estimation of the likelihood of conversion on a specific parcel of grassland is central to the project,” Dell said. “We must demonstrate that, without the project, the grass would be plowed under.”