Difficult Decisions – Growing Season Fires and Other Prairie Management Choices

Would you purposefully destroy the nest of a wild turkey or grasshopper sparrow?  Of course not.  But what if that destruction was a consequence of a land management action that benefits the larger prairie community?  That was the situation we were faced with last week as we mulled over whether or not to conduct a late spring (early summer?) prescribed burn.

Michelle Biodrowski ignites a prescribed fire last week (June 6) at a wet-mesic prairie.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.

Michelle Biodrowski ignites a prescribed fire last week (June 6) at a wet-mesic prairie. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

In the aftermath of any prescribed fire, there are winners and losers.  Fire rapidly and dramatically alters habitat and growing conditions in ways that favor some plant and animal species and put others at a disadvantage.  Fires also kill some insects and other animals outright.  For example, dormant season (late fall through early spring) fires burn up a lot of invertebrates that overwinter in prairie thatch.  Growing season fires, of course, can kill numerous small animals – especially slow-moving non-flying ones.  We usually don’t see the evidence of those impacts, but when we do, it’s no fun.  Over the years, I’ve seen way too many fried snakes and scorched nests, in addition to animals who suffered injuries from our fires.  It can be tough to deal with the knowledge that I made the decision to light the fires that killed or maimed those animals.

Regal

I’m sure we burned up a number of regal fritillaries in our fire last week because the females are within a few weeks of emerging as adults, and the kind of thatchy prairie we burned is prime habitat for overwintering larvae.  However, we would have done the same damage to those caterpillars if we’d burned the prairie any time between October and July.  Fortunately, regal fritillaries are very common in our prairies, so I know the overall population will be fine.

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garter

Snakes are common victims of growing season fires.  It’s likely we killed some snakes last week, though I didn’t see any corpses as I walked around the next day.  I did, however, find a live red-sided garter in one of the small unburned patches in the middle of the burn unit – so at least one survived…

While it can certainly be deadly to insects and animals, fire is also an important part of our strategies to maintain diverse and healthy prairie communities.  Fire can help suppress invasive species, remove thatch and stimulate vigorous plant growth, and attract grazing activity – among many other things.   Prairies that aren’t burned fairly frequently often suffer from tree/shrub encroachment, excessive build-up of litter, and/or dominance by a few native grass species.  Other tools, including grazing and haying, can be used instead of fire (or in addition to it) but those can also have negative impacts, and can’t replicate everything fire can do.  Knowing that fire can cause problems for some species, we try to minimize those impacts as much as we can.  For example, we usually only burn a portion of a larger prairie so that any impacts are not likely to affect the entire population of a species.

A smooth brome

Smooth brome was mostly done blooming when we burned, and starting to make seed.  I’m not sure how much we sapped the vigor out of the brome (a week or two earlier might have been better) but I guess we at least prevented it from making seed this year.

The main objective for our burn last week was to create an attractive patch of nutritious grass to concentrate cattle grazing in that portion of the prairie – part of our patch-burn grazing system.  We are using a light stocking rate of cattle this year, so we expect the grazing in the burned patch to be selective (the cattle should eat mostly grass) and to favor wildflower diversity by suppressing dominant grasses.  Meanwhile, unburned areas won’t be grazed much at all, allowing them to rest from previous years’ grazing and last year’s drought.  The result should be a messy mixture of habitat types and growing conditions across the prairie that will allow just about every species to thrive somewhere.

We’d hoped to burn the site earlier in the spring, but never got the right weather window to do it.  In other sites where we didn’t get our planned burns done this year, we’re using electric fence to temporarily enclose the cattle in what were supposed to be the burned patches.  The idea is to get the cattle to graze the areas down sufficiently that when we take the fence down in early July the cattle will continue to graze the regrowth (which will then be the best quality forage in the prairie) in those patches for the remainder of the season – similar to what we’d see in burned patches.  It’s far from a perfect subsitute for burning, but it does at least concentrate grazing pretty well in one portion of the prairie and allow other areas to rest.  The biggest disadvantage of the temporary grazing enclosure method is that cattle aren’t very selective in their grazing within that enclosure, so we lose some of the benefits we in burned patches when cattle graze mainly grasses.

patches of green

It was a pretty complete (though pretty slow and smoky) burn last week, but there were a few patches that didn’t burn – mostly in low, wet areas where the thatch was moist enough it didn’t carry fire.  The green strip shown here is at the bottom of a wetland swale and is also where I found the surviving red-sided garter snake mentioned earlier.

After weighing the pros and cons of burning in early June, we decided to go ahead with last week’s fire.  We certainly burned up nests of meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows, and at least one turkey (a forlorn-looking female was wandering around after the fire).  I expect most of those will have time to re-nest, but that only makes me feel marginally better about it.  I’m sure we also killed lots of insects and some wildlife species.  On the other hand, the burn allows us to move ahead with our management strategy to improve the wildflower diversity of the entire prairie.  That increase in wildflower diversity will benefit a wide range of insect and wildlife species in coming years, as will the habitat structure created in both the burned and unburned patches.  We burned about 65 acres, but left more than 300 acres of the prairie unburned.  Actually, there is much more unburned prairie than that, since there are more than 1,000 acres of unburned grassland on adjacent land as well.  That unburned prairie should be a great refuge for fire-sensitive species and give them opportunities to recolonize last week’s burn over the next several years.

eastern red cedar

This eastern red cedar burned brown after the fire, but it’s unlikely to die.  Experience has shown us that growing season fires rarely “cook” cedar trees enough to kill them.  Even when they turn brown, they tend to green up again.  However, this prairie has had numerous dormant season fires, so cedar control was not an objective for last week’s fire.  We’ll get this one next time.

The kind of difficult decision we made last week is a regular part of land management.  Every management treatment leads to the improvement of conditions for some species but hurts others – often literally.  Just letting “nature take its course” by not managing at all isn’t any better.  An idled prairie eventually becomes dominated by trees and shrubs, along with just a few grass and wildflower species.  That degradation of habitat kills or evicts more animals and plants than active management, which maintains diverse plant and animal communities.

Right or wrong, I guess I’ve trained myself to focus on the long-term positive outcomes of our management and not to dwell on the short-term negative impacts.  I’m not sure if that makes me insensitive or just sensible.  One thing that helps me justify our actions to myself is that we’re collecting as much data as we can about the overall impacts of our management.  If we’re going to make tough decisions that have negative consequences for other living creatures, I want to KNOW that those decisions are leading to the long-term benefits we think they are.  We can never collect enough data to know everything we want to, but we collect enough that I’m convinced most of our management strategies are working as planned, and we constantly tweak those strategies as we learn more.

Ants

The ants in these mounds appeared to survive the fire just fine.  I assume they’ll be able to find plenty of food, and satisfy their other needs, as the prairie greens up around them over the next few weeks.

Regardless of the tough decisions we have to make, I love my job.  I feel good that we’re improving the condition of our prairies, and that we’re sharing successes and failures with other prairie managers so they can do the same.  It’s difficult for me to imagine a more fulfilling career.  I always try to focus on the big picture instead of dwelling on the immediate negative impacts of some of our actions.  At the same time, I try to be ethical about what we do, and not cause harm when it’s not necessary.

It’s a messy world and a messy job, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photo of the Week – June 7, 2013

Prairies demonstrate their resilience regularly, but usually in a fairly subtle way.  They tend to adjust their plant composition after fire, grazing, or drought in ways you might not notice unless you were a botanist.  Once in while, however, prairies take it to the next level and really show off.

A profusion of penstemon in restored sandhill prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.

A profusion of penstemon in restored sandhill prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Last year was the driest year on record for this area.  We had less than half of our average annual rainfall, and most of that came early.  By late August, very little green was left in most of our sites.  The prairie shown above had been burned in the spring and grazed most of the season.  Many people seeing it for the first time would have assumed it was dead and gone (see photo below).

This is the same portion of prairie shown in the first photo, but this images was taken August 24, 2012 after a year of fire, grazing, and severe drought.  Most of the green in the photo is western ragweed and a little goldenrod.

This is the same portion of prairie shown in the first photo, but this images was taken August 24, 2012 after a year of fire, grazing, and severe drought. Most of the green in the photo is western ragweed and a little goldenrod.

I’ve written about the ecological resilience of prairies before, and have presented long-term data showing how our prairies fluctuate in plant composition over time in response to drought, grazing, fire, and various combinations of those factors.  Many plant species rise and fall in abundance as conditions change (opportunistic species) and others tend to maintain a steady population size, though they may be more or less visible in particular years.  It’s one thing to see that in graphs and tables, but it’s also fun to see a spectacular green-up and explosion of wildflowers in person, especially after a long dry (brown) year.

In the sandhill prairie shown above, last year’s drought caused most of the perennial plant species to enter dormancy by July – effectively giving up on that season’s growth and reproduction potential and saving their remaining energy for the next year.  Before they went into dormancy, however, the perennial grasses had already been weakened by relatively intense grazing, reducing the size of their root masses and opening up space for opportunistic species to take advantage of.  One of those opportunistic species is the short-lived perennial shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus) which is obviously thriving this season.  Shell-leaf penstemon has been generally increasing in abundance since this prairie was seeded in 2002, but it took a gigantic leap forward this year.  Based on what I’ve seen in other prairies, I expect it to decline in abundance over the next couple of years as the dominant grasses and other long-lived perennials recover from last year’s stress.  In the meantime, we’re happy to enjoy the prairie’s flamboyant demonstration of resilience.

Junegrass (Koeeria macrantha) is also having a great year, and provides a beautiful counterpoint to the penstemon in this photo.

Junegrass (Koeeria macrantha) is also having a great year, and provides a beautiful counterpoint to the penstemon in this photo.

If you’re in the area, now is a great time to come hike our trails.  Both the upland and lowland trails through the Platte River Prairies cut right through huge patches of penstemon.  If you’ve never been to our trails, you can find directions and more information here.

The mowed hiking trail through sandhills provides excellent exposure to the penstemon profusion this season.

The mowed hiking trail through the sandhills takes you right through penstemon profusion this season.