The Nature Conservancy in South Dakota will work with partners to conduct prescribed burns on native prairie this spring.
Fire is an essential force that has shaped ecosystems and life forms around the globe. But in many ecosystems today, the role of fire is severely out of balance, threatening to devastate both human and natural communities. In South Dakota, fire prevents brush and trees from overtaking the prairie, prevents build-up of dead vegetation that encourages weeds and retards new growth, and improves habitat for prairie birds, mammals and butterflies. Many “exotic” grasses (introduced from Europe, Asia or other areas of North America), such as Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome, threaten to overwhelm the native prairie community. These cool-season grasses which grow quickly and flower in spring can be set back by burns in May, allowing the summer-flowering native prairie grasses to flourish. In forests, fire can remove hazardous fuel loads of downed trees and vegetation that threaten the health of forests and the people living among and near them
HOW ARE BURNS CONTROLLED?
Each individual on a crew is responsible for the success of the burn. Burns will be undertaken only within “prescribed” conditions—weather that permits safe burning. Mowed fire breaks or burned strips (black lines) outline the prairie unit to be burned. The “ring firing technique” is used: Using drip torches, crew members start by setting a backing fire into the wind along a specified line. Generally an hour or more later, a head fire is set. This eventually meets the backing fire, extinguishing them both. Using water tanks and “flappers,” crew members extinguish flames as necessary. The last step is “mop up.” The crew makes certain that old fence posts, cow chips or tree limbs near the burn perimeter are completely free of smoke or flame before leaving the site. Local and state authorities are and preserve neighbors are notified prior to the burns.
SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH SHOWS IMPORTANCE OF FIRE TO PRAIRIE
Scientists have been studying prairie since the 1930s. They have found that prairie grasses and flowers are well suited to fire—in fact, they thrive with it. These perennial plants grow back quickly from protected root systems which often extend 15 feet underground. Fires prevent brush and trees from invading the prairie; shade kills prairie plants. After a fire passes, the prairie grasses and other plants respond with a profusion of bloom. Fires also remove the build-up of dead vegetation, encourage new plant growth and help suppress non-prairie plants like Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome. Studies show that wild mammals and birds recognize fire and nearly all escape the flames. Small mammals go underground while larger ones move away temporarily or jump unharmed across the fire line..
Tentative List of the Conservancy’s 2008 Priority Burns
7-Mile Fen, Deuel County
Altamont Prairie, Deuel County
Aurora Prairie, Brookings County
Sioux Prairie, Moody County
Samuel H. Ordway, Jr. Memorial Preserve, McPherson County
Ecosun Prairie Farms Project, Moody County
Prairie Coteau Habitat Partnership private lands, northeast SD
Private lands in McPherson and Edmunds counties
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
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