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Prescribed Fire Good for Landscape Health

21_02-2011

Learning to use prescribed fire provides landowners with a tool to improve the health of natural ecosystems, including wildlife habitat. Photo by MDC Staff, courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation.

Missouri and Iowa represent a geographic transition zone where eastern forests meet the Great Plains. It’s estimated at the time of statehood, about one third of Missouri’s landscape was savanna and woodland habitat. Today, the estimated acreage of high-quality savanna and woodland habitat is just 9,000 acres. Along with degradation of our prairies, we have lost the open spaces where “big trees,” which in Missouri and Iowa are mainly oaks and hickories, mix with native prairie grasses. The good news is there are hundreds of thousands of acres identified as degraded savanna remnants we can restore.

“You wouldn’t believe this was the same farm if you saw what it looked like when I bought it forty years ago. Most of it was choked with cedars and scrub. After buying land because of my love of wildlife, I ignored the habitat for too many years. I knew I had to restore the native landscapes on this place for wildlife to flourish, so I called the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to ask about the wild turkey’s favorite habitat. They said, ‘big woods that have been thinned and burned,’” Bruce Sassmann said. “I set my first fire in 2008. Yesterday, I took a ride around the farm. At one point, a dozen tiny wild turkey poults scrambled to get out of my way. They were there because I burned.”

Fire is essential in savanna and woodland management. Historically, fires from lighting strikes and those lit by Native Americans burned the landscape, keeping the growth of the understory in check. Enormous herds of free roaming buffalo and other grassland ungulates, like elk, deer and antelope assisted fire in maintaining the habitat. After settlement, with the wide-ranging herds of wildlife extirpated and fire suppressed, savannas and woodlands were swallowed. Nothing was left to control growth. Even more savanna and woodland habitat was cleared and plowed.

“Last year, the fires on the farm began on August 26th. The late summer burns set back the warm season grasses in favor of forbs. The grasses are the structure and cover, but the broad leaf plants are the dinner plate for the wildlife. The fire encourages early succession vegetation. The young tender plants attract the bugs. The bugs attract the baby turkey and the baby quail. Great plant diversity and habitat for wildlife doesn’t happen without fire,” Sassmann said. “Land management is driven by the goals of the landowner, but the greatest diversity of habitat and ultimately wildlife exist on a landscape managed with fire.”

Through state and federal agencies, and non-profit conservation organizations, like the NWTF, educational and financial support exists for landowners interested in savanna and woodland restoration and management.

John Burk, a NWTF District Biologist covering Missouri and Illinois, said “Part of my job responsibility is to take dollars we raise and match them with partner dollars to enhance habitat that will make the biggest difference. With turkeys, that means nesting and brood rearing habitat. I can’t think of a more productive acre than open woodlands to achieve this objective.”

Landowners who care about holding wildlife on their property understand and have an appreciation for the importance of increasing offspring survival rates. Proper habitat management is a critical aspect of ensuring wildlife will survive its most vulnerable weeks, those being their first few.

“Nest success and poult survival are two of the most important parameters affecting wild turkey populations, so landowner efforts to create and maintain nesting and brood-rearing habitats are critically important. The grasses and forbs found growing in savannas and woodlands provide ideal structure for a hen and her brood. Poults can move efficiently through adequate cover as they search for insects. Restoring savannas and woodlands to their original condition is certainly beneficial to the wild turkey, along with a variety of other wildlife species,” said Jason Isabelle, MDC Resource Scientist.

The Private Lands Services Division of the MDC works with private landowners to establish, meet and manage their habitat goals. In a state with 93 percent of its lands in private ownership, the Department understands the critical importance of building strong relationships with private landowners. MDC invests heavily in staff and resources to educate landowners about habitat management. The state agency also provides services and financial support for boots on the ground efforts.

“In the absence of active forest management, open savannas and woodlands eventually become closed canopied. They are dependent upon disturbance to keep them in that early successional herbaceous condition hens seek for adequate nesting cover because they support high insect densities required for poult survival. Without proper management, the herbaceous condition providing the food and cover fades away along with the wildlife depending upon it,” Burk said.

In the fiscal year 2015-2016, MDC allocated $1.6 million in cost-share assistance to landowners for conservation efforts. For approved projects, citizens are reimbursed 50–75 percent of the costs of performing conservation project, which includes savanna and woodland restoration. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), through funding of the federal farm bill provides millions of dollars to landowners for conservation. This is one reason why the Farm Bill is so critical for conservation across the country.

See you down the trail…
Brandon Butler

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