Conservation Minnesota

Burn, Prairie, Burn!

Photo: Whitney Thesing

Photo: Whitney Thesing

To me, a perfect spring morning is standing in front of acres of native prairie with a drip torch in my hands, ready to set it ablaze. For four years I worked doing ecological research on native prairie and, without a doubt, my favorite part of the job was the days we got to do prescribed burning.

Prescribed burning (or controlled burning) is the deliberate use of fire as a management tool in forestry, farming and prairie restoration. It is done under a specific set of weather conditions by highly training experts in order to restore the health of fire-adapted ecosystems. It is one of the few management tools where the benefits far exceed the cost.

Fire has always been a natural part of our local ecosystem. When prairies covered the land, lightning would frequently strike the ground and spark a glorious blaze. Because of the high frequency of these occurrences (every two to 50 years), native flora and fauna became adapted to periodic burnings. Throughout time, people realized the benefits of fires.  Native Americans would set the grasslands on fire to encourage new growth. Locally, the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, a long term ecological research site just north of the Twin Cities in East Bethel, MN, has been doing controlled burns on prairie and oak savannahs since the 1960’s. They are one of the longest ongoing scientific fire experiments in the world.

When it comes to prairies, burning the existing vegetation has many positive effects on the flora and fauna:

-It puts nutrients that would otherwise be tied up in old plant growth back into the soil.

-Sunlight warms the freshly blackened earth, encouraging seed germination.

-Native prairie has very deep root systems that regenerate quickly after a fire while competing plants, encroaching woody vegetation, and invasive species typically do not survive.

-Plants that have damage due to animal foraging are burned past the damaged areas and have the opportunity to re-grow.

-Fire increases acorn production in Oak trees, benefiting many animals such as deer, squirrels and wild turkeys.

-Certain birds such as Sandhill Cranes, Blue Birds, and Sharp Tailed Grouse prefer open areas cleared of brush.

-Red Headed and Pilated Woodpeckers use dead trees for foraging and nesting.

-Many birds nest in the grasses including Mourning Doves, Eastern Meadowlarks, Sparrows and Pheasants.

There are some negative aspects associated with prescribed burning. The destruction of ground nests, mortality of creatures and out of control fires are always of concern when burning. Most prescribed burns are schedule in the spring before birds begin to make their grounds nests. Large mammals and birds are rarely killed, as they leave the area when the burning begins. Amphibians, reptiles and small mammals burrow under the soil to escape the flames and heat. The only consistent casualties are spiders and insects but their population numbers tend to rebound quickly. Prescribed burning could easily get out of control very quickly but every precaution is taken to ensure this does not happen. Only experts with training, proper equipment, and ideal weather conditions should be engaged in prescribed burning.

Prescribed burning is a wonderful management tool that helps us preserve very delicate and important ecosystems that are becoming increasingly rare.  Burning is good for the soil, plants, animals and the ecosystem as a whole. To prevent out of control wildfires and to maintain this ecosystem like nature intended, prescribed burning is the answer. Also, who doesn’t love fire?

About Whitney Thesing

Whitney Thesing
Whitney Thesing graduated in 2009 from the University of Minnesota - Morris with degrees in Economics and Environmental Studies.  After graduating, she has worked in many areas of natural resources including water quality, invasive species management, ecological experiments, phenology, and native ecosystem restoration. She volunteers her time as a member of St. Louis Park's Environment and Sustainability Commission, focusing on education and behavior change, and water resources, two causes near to her heart.
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