“Falling” for Prescribed Fire

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A landowner burns his grassland on Oct. 25, 2019 in north-central Nebraska

On October 25, 2019 a crew of 20 friends, neighbors, and volunteer firefighters, including Northern Prairies Land Trust biologists, teamed up to burn 290 acres of pasture in the Middle Niobrara Biologically Unique Landscape (north-central Nebraska).  The burn is unusual because ranchers in the area have been hesitant to burn grasslands in the fall. They worry that the loss of plant cover could cause sandy soils to blow away over the long winter.

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The mixed-grass sand prairie on Sept. 13, 2019 prior to prescribed fire. Fire will burn off old thatch and “decadent” little bluestem growth, allowing more wildflowers and more palatable grass to grow.

The landowners and their grazing tenant have burned before and enjoyed multiple benefits from their prescribed fires. They appreciate that the burns improve grass production and control eastern redcedar trees and seeds before they grow tall enough to reduce grazing potential and increase tree removal costs. This year they decided to experiment with some different timing.

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A couple days after the October 2019 burn taken from the same spot as the photo above, looking down the burn line. Notice the uncontrolled cedar growth on the neighbor’s property across the fence, negatively affecting grassland wildlife habitat and grazing potential.

Burning in the fall allowed the cattle producers to avoid the pressures of spring calving season that can interfere with burning. It was easier for them to find help and the fall weather was more predictable. By including fall and early winter in their burn plans, they had more opportunities to burn. As of February 2020, they have not observed any soil movement on the burned area.

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Cedar seedlings the day of the October 2019 burn.
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The same cedar seedlings slowly turning orange a week later, indicating that they have died.

Burning in the fall has benefits for woodlands as well. Woodlands burn better in the fall than in the spring because dry, freshly fallen leaves carry the fire. Woodland burns control the number of cedars in the forest, especially in areas where terrain limits the ability to cut or spray cedar seedlings as they emerge. Fewer cedars in the forest means fewer cedars spreading out into grasslands and allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor. More sunlight means more forage for cattle and more native plants to support pollinators and insects in general, which are the anchor for woodland food webs. The direct sunlight is necessary for the next generation of oak and pine trees to grow.

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Fire moves through grass in a pine savannah in November 2018.
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Northern Prairies Land Trust staff light leaf litter in a fall oak woodland burn in November 2016.
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Fire moves through leaf litter at Ponca State Park in northeast Nebraska in December 2017.

Hunters take note: exposed acorns in forests burned in the fall are a magnet for deer and turkey throughout the remaining fall and winter. A game camera left on a tree during one of our burns in November 2016 documented deer using the burn area the same night of the burn, undeterred by the unusual activity. In the spring, those same deer and turkey will be drawn to the burn because the dark-colored ground is the first place to warm and green up. In the long-term, healthy forests produce abundant acorn crops for game animals and insects for turkey broods.

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A woodland burn is captured on a game camera in November 2016 at 7:24 pm.
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Deer were back on the burn before the sun had risen the next day. Notice the bright embers in the background.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We benefit the most native plants, pollinators, and other wildlife species by burning at different seasons over the years, including spring, growing season, and fall burns. Our grasslands and woodlands need fire to be healthy. Different plants and animals benefit most from fire at different times of the year. By changing fire timing in a pasture or woodland over time, we can maximize our cattle production and our biodiversity.

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This is the same woodland in the game camera image above, the following spring. This ranch had invested in cedar removal from the oak woodland several years previously and the burn was follow-up maintenance on that investment with excellent cedar sapling kill.

Interested in burning for improved cattle production and wildlife habitat? Consider joining your neighbors in a local prescribed fire association.

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Ranchers of the Niobrara Valley Prescribed Burn Association team up to burn a complex of oak woodland, pine savannah, and sand prairie in November 2018.

Benefits from Every Angle: the Santee Sioux’s Land Restoration Work

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A mid-August view from the “High Bench” before restoration work started.

They call it the High Bench: The view from a prairie ridge south of Santee overlooks a natural heritage of blazing star, goldenrod, little bluestem, and oaks. But the beautiful view is threatened and the Santee Sioux Nation has partnered with multiple conservation agencies to restore the tallgrass prairie and oak woodlands. The restoration work started in October 2018 and will benefit people, plants, and wildlife in multiple ways.

Historically, frequent wildfires maintained open prairies and sunny oak woodlands along the Missouri River by preventing the spread of eastern red-cedar and other brush. Lack of fire in the woodlands has promoted the invasion of shade-tolerant native trees and shrubs, such as hackberry and dogwood, and non-native species such as Siberian elm and buckthorn. The now-dense trees shade out native grasses and wildflowers on the woodland floor and reduce sunlight needed by the next generation of oaks to sprout and grow.

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Rough blazing star and big bluestem thrive in tallgrass prairie on the project site near the edge of the oak woodland.
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Dogwood and eastern redcedar are expanding from the woodland, displacing native prairie plants.
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Eastern redcedar crowds oaks, limiting the amount of light reaching the forest floor, which results in bare ground.

To restore these plant communities, the Santee Sioux Nation partnered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Northern Prairies Land Trust, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Nebraska Forest Service to plan 122 acres of cedar removal and 207 acres of woodland thinning. These projects would allow the Santee to reintroduce prescribed fire into the area. The project builds on previous restoration work by the Santee Sioux. Using the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Tribe has controlled invasive brush and adjusted grazing practices to support tallgrass prairie health and the use of prescribed fire.

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The Santee Hazardous Fuels Program crew is working to restore tallgrass prairie and oak woodland to benefit people, plants, and wildlife.

Prescribed fire is a familiar tool for the Santee Tribe. The Santee Hazardous Fuels crew often conducts prescribed fires on its own and other tribal lands in Nebraska. After some training, crew members were able to add tree identification and forest management techniques to their résumés.

Duwayne Traversie, BIA Fuels Specialist, said that employees of the Fuels Program are strengthening leadership abilities and developing career skills in natural resource management through this project. Theo Wright, a crew member, agrees: “training opportunities are more limited elsewhere. [This program] is more diverse and opens more paths.” Brittany Iron Shell, crew supervisor, adds, “I love science and being outdoors and it’s cool to combine it all into one career.”

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Chris Wood (NPLT) and Steve Rasmussen (NFS) provide training in tree identification and forest thinning to the Santee Hazardous Fuels Crew.

The woodland and prairie work will not only benefit native plants, but also game species such as turkeys, squirrels, and white-tailed deer, and rare animals, such as the northern long-eared bat, Bell’s vireo, and monarch and regal fritillary butterfly.

During his lifetime, crew member Jeremy Archampeau has observed a decline in traditional medicinal plants in the area. “I am interested to see if the project helps those medicinal plants come back,” he said.  Crew supervisor Leslie Brownrigg is excited about the effects of their work. “I see more opportunities [on Santee land] to do the same thing: getting more of the landscape back to its natural state, opening up rangeland and bringing back native grasses.”

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Crew members remove dogwood brush from the oak woodland understory. Photo credit: Brittany Iron Shell

Perhaps the most exciting results cannot be seen from the High Bench. The project’s social and economic benefits will strengthen community connections to conservation and the land. Not only were crew members kept employed during a slow time of year, but the crew’s size was actually expanded for the project. Hank Miller, Math and Science Division Head at Nebraska Indian Community College hopes to use the project for environmental monitoring sites for his students. Trees cut from the woodland are available to tribal members for home heating. Brush-free and healthy grasslands and forests will benefit the tribal ranching program and buffer the town of Santee from high intensity wildfires. Crew member David Freemont sums it up well: “I am happy to be part of this project because it will have so many positive impacts.”

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Leslie Brownrigg and Brittany Iron Shell place a post to mark where the crew will take photos to monitor progress on the project over time.
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A regal fritillary we found on the project site. This butterfly is rapidly disappearing from many parts of its range. It depends on healthy tallgrass prairie.

This project is also an effort of the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project and NGPC’s WILD Nebraska Habitat Program. In addition to the partners mentioned above, funding is provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nebraska Wildlife Conservation Fund.

Authors:
Jennifer Corman – Northern Prairies Land Trust
Cassidy Wessel – Nebraska Game and Parks Commission