Many of you probably heard the news about the wildfires in the badlands earlier this spring. Areas around Medora, the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and some other areas have burned. In all, a few thousand acres of native prairie were blackened.
We tend to think of fires, whether in a prairie or forest fire, as destructive. But we need to realize that fire was a natural factor in grassland formation and maintenance. And once a fire started to spread, in some cases it could have gone miles before stopping. Plus Native Americans burned prairie. A lot of prairie. They were conducted for a variety of reasons, one of which was to attract the bison. Native Americans learned early on that bison were attracted to the regrowth because it was more palatable, nutritious, and accessible.
Burning is a tool in the toolbox for present day natural resource managers as well. These burns used to be called “Controlled Burns.” But they were not always controlled! Plus, the burns did not always accomplish the objective. So now “Prescribed Burns” are the currently accepted management tool for natural resource managers. Much as a Doctor would prescribe a particular treatment for a particular condition, managers do something similar with prescribed burning.
If for example the risk for a wildfire is high on a tract of land, a prescription would be constructed for conducting the burn. The prescription would contain a prescribed set of conditions under which the burn would be conducted to help ensure the objective is met. Those prescribed conditions would include a specific range of temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, whether to burn into the wind or with the wind, crew size, etc. On a given day the burn would be postponed if the conditions of the prescription were not met.
Prescribed burning can help managers achieve a variety of objectives. They can, for example be used to increase the production as well as flowering and seed production of many grassland species. They can also be used to kill or suppress invasive plants such as Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome, encourage desirable species, or increase habitat suitability for wildlife.
If you can view an area where a prescribed burn has been conducted, make a point of observing it. Walk it if you can. Assuming we get some much-needed rain, I think you will be surprised by what you see.