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The work to improve Iowa’s prairies takes center stage each spring when agencies and private landowners use fire to manage their grasslands and improve their value for wildlife.
Burning as a management tool helps to fend off encroaching woody species and nonnative plants in an effort to promote diverse native grasses and wildflowers. Burning removes the accumulated thatch and reinvigorates native plants by simulating what occurred naturally for centuries.
But unlike Mother Nature, these burns must be well planned to maximize the benefits to the land and wildlife while minimizing the impact to neighbors.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources burns about 15 to 20,000 acres each year and each burn requires a plan, which includes fire breaks, notifying neighbors and contacting the local fire and rescue dispatch.
Smoke management is a big issue and wildlife biologists use spot weather forecasts to burn when the conditions are predicted to give the smoke a lift into the atmosphere or carry it away from nearby homes, roads or communities.
There are specific management goals for the area to be burned that is part of the long term management plan, said Scott Peterson, wildlife supervisor for central Iowa.
“Once the conditions allow, we will start carrying out our burn plans across the state,” Peterson said. “This is an effort to diversify the landscape as much as possible to create a stable environment. Prairie was a dominant landscape and by using fire, hopefully we can bring some of those grassland species back, like Henslow’s sparrow, dickcissels, bobolinks and meadowlarks.”
Removing the thatch allows ground nesting species including pheasants and quail to move through the area easier. Burned areas sprout new growth within a week and within a few weeks there will be little evidence that the area was burned.
“Our grassland wildlife are among our most quickly disappearing species,” said Bill Ohde, wildlife supervisor for the DNR in southeast Iowa. “Prairie systems are extremely complex and as our knowledge base continues to grow, we will adapt our management of those areas.
“The timing of the burn will determine how the prairie responds to it. You may see us burning in the summer or in the fall to encourage wildflowers, which are important to attract insects, a vital food for young birds,” Ohde said.
One of the complaints they often hear, Ohde said, is that burning destroys all the ground nests. While some nests are lost with the spring burns, the loss is only in the short term, and most birds will re-nest.
“We try to impact the nests as little as possible, but for the long term health and productivity of the grasslands and wildlife, fire is a tremendous management tool,” Ohde said.