Prairie Habitat Management: Prescribed Fire

Habitat management is the key to successful wildlife management. No wild animal can survive in the absence of its much-needed habitat. One tallgrass prairie study found that burning was much better for grasslands than simply long-term shredding. It had been reported in the past that shredding could maintain a native prairie, but fire seems to be even better and that there are important implications for prairie management and restoration.

The project involved using historical data, but that information reflected a degraded system brought on by decades of mowing. Mowing actually decreased species diversity. However, this latest research found that prescribed fires reversed this degradation and returned native grass. These findings are particularly relevant for habitat management as mowing is increasingly promoted as a fire substitute for prairie management.

For example, research in the past concluded that native grasslands can be harvested to produce biofuels. While the researchers are correct, new data suggest that replacing prescribed fires with mowing to harvest biofuels in high quality remnant prairies will not be compatible with maintaining native prairie plant biodiversity. Another study recommended creating permanent fire-free refuges in prairies to protect fire-sensitive species. The latest data shows this is a no-no and mowing does not effectively control brush. Brush encroachment can be detrimental to natural springs.

In fact, they caution that the elimination of fire as a management tool could eliminate the host plants that some prairie species depend on. I agree. The role of fire in maintaining prairie animal populations remains poorly known, but we know encroaching brush and cedar changes habitat structure. Interactions involving prescribed burning, habitat loss and fragmentation and climate change further complicates matters and necessitates careful integration of fire management with animal conservation.

Replacing fire with mowing in some areas may be appropriate for
some wildlife in some places, but it is a largely unproven approach. A more sound approach to tallgrass prairie habitat management will be to maintain prescribed fires into the future if we are to attempt to maintain the diversity of all taxa in tallgrass prairie.

One thought on “Prairie Habitat Management: Prescribed Fire

  1. Kathy Cooper

    I would like to know the specifics on the studies you have mentioned. There is still great debate among resource professionals on the idea that mowing is good for preservation of sensitive species. This sounds like it might be good information if it is available. Thanks, Kathy.

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