Tax time is habitat burn timeWORTHINGTON — Every day is a learning process. Even when you have done a certain exercise many times, it is amazing just how much more can be learned from others. I have been involved with — and participated in — more than a few habitat burns.
By: Scott Rall, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Every day is a learning process. Even when you have done a certain exercise many times, it is amazing just how much more can be learned from others. I have been involved with — and participated in — more than a few habitat burns.
A habitat burn is a burn that takes place between mid-April and May 15. These burns are done in order to create better wildlife habitat by re-invigorating native grasses and forbs.
Fires occurred naturally on the prairies before human intervention and most were started by lightning. I can only imagine what was going through the minds of the Native Americans when they saw a wall of fire roaring in their direction. It was said that in some cases a man on horseback could not outrun these fires. I know there was an island in the middle of Mountain Lake in Cottonwood County that Indians took refuge on to protect themselves from prairie fires.
Fire is a magic tool in the management of wildlife habitat. I did a burn out in Aroura County, S.D., last spring. The burn was done on a pasture that had been grazed for decades but had not had cows on it for several years. The pasture grew a mixture of limited native species and was overrun by non-native grasses. I could see just enough native grass species that I was sure a burn would transform this parcel. To look at this pasture, it was easy to see that in its current condition it could sustain very little wildlife. It was badly degraded and overrun with non-native smooth brome grass which only grew to a height of about10 inches.
After some discussions with the property owners, we pulled of the burn last spring. I explained that this parcel would look entirely different the following fall. I had the opportunity to visit this site a few weeks back and the changes could only be described as amazing. The entire area was covered with a native grass, big bluestem. When the owner’s wife walked across the pasture the grasses were so tall you could not see her.
I knew there would be a big difference, but this was even beyond my expectations.
Burning is done in the spring for several reasons. The first is that most non-native grasses, smooth brome being the most common, are cool season grasses. They are the first to green up in the spring and the first to brown up in the fall. By burning in the spring, you use the dead grasses that have accumulated to create a fire hot enough to burn the already growing cool season species. Green grass does burn if you can get the fire hot enough.
This burning of a growing plant injures the plant and slows its maturity, thus making it less competitive to the grasses you desire. Many of the most desirable native grasses are warm season grasses and don’t really get going until the end of May into early June. So, when the fire takes place in early spring no damage is done to the grass species you are trying to help. The fire also adds an element of fertilizer from the ashes and this is just what the soon-to-awaken native grasses need.
Burning in the spring can and does burn up and destroy a number of pheasant and duck nests. Most nesting efforts hit high gear in mid-May and most burns are done prior to that time. Even if a few nests are lost, these birds will most likely make a re-nesting attempt and still be successful in pulling off a clutch of young. Pheasants can try many times and I have heard that three to four times is likely.
The amount of habitat that is burned is usually about one-third of the total acres. This leaves more than enough grass remaining to allow for successful re-nesting attempts. You very rarely burn the entire spot. Burns need to be done about every five years, but each spot is different. Some need it more often and some less.
I recently visited with a wildlife professional and friend, Tom Bauman, from the LeSeuer River Seeding Company in Waseca. He has done hundreds of burns and has tons of fire experience. He shared with me a few tips of the trade when it comes to burning, and it just shows you can learn more in an hour from an experienced professional than you can uncover by yourself through trial and error over many years.
Even with all of the proper preparation completed, Bauman will not light a fire if the humidity in the air is high. I thought that high humidity would make for a cooler fire that would be easier to control. In fact, what high humidity does is cause grasses to burn so slowly that they can be transported by the wind great distances and still be a glowing ember when they touch down up to a mile away. Fires tend to jump the control lines more often when humidity is high.
The same is said if the humidity is too low. This creates higher than normal fire temperatures, and the ability for embers to be transported on thermals to undesirable locations greatly increases. Humidity is just one factor in wildfire habitat burns. It has to be in a certain range or no burning should be done.
Now, it does not take a rocket scientist to know that burning in higher wind speeds is dangerous. What I learned is that doing a burn in a steady 15 mph wind is safer than burning in an 8 mph wind that is variable in direction. Sustained winds of higher speeds are more predictable and a far better choice than lighter, more variable winds.
I have recently upgraded my fire equipment. When doing habitat burns, an ATV with a 25-gallon tank on the back is high value machinery. This is what I had. Four ATVs — all with water — is even better. What I found is that trying to steer with one hand while operating the wand with the other is very difficult when operating on uneven terrain. Most burns are done on uneven terrain.
I traded my ATV (all-terrain vehicle) for a UTV (utility-terrain vehicle.) A UTV is like a big, all-terrain golf cart. They have a steering wheel and operate much like a car. They also have much larger cargo capacities, and my 25-gallon tank is now a 65-gallon tank with a 40-foot hose reel that offers a farther reach.
I consider myself a passionate amateur when it comes to dog training and I must fit the same category when it comes to my habitat burning efforts. When you see a big plume of smoke rising off the prairies, please member that the short-term losses of nesting due to spring habitat burns will more than be recovered with much higher nesting success in the regenerated grasses. When it comes to managing prairies and wildlife habitat, the saying “burn baby burn” is the right tune.
If you need a burn done and want to hire a professional burn crew, contact Tom Bauman at email@example.com.
Scott Rall is the Daily Globe’s outdoors columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.