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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Baker

Prairie Management. Be Mindful.

Updated: Apr 6


prairie management should be mindful
Jennifer Baker on a prescribed burn

Outfitted in yellow Nomex and armed with a rubber flapper, I wait for the drip torch to start a burn line along the base of last year’s bluestem stalks that still tower over a five-acre prairie. The winds are in our favor and the flames are out almost as quickly as they started, leaving a charred black field in their wake. I was almost disappointed that there wasn’t more drama; nary a flap needed from my flapper.


It’s April; the heart of “prescribed” burn season in Wisconsin. I had just completed my first without fanfare.


As a panelist for a local prairie management conference, I was asked; “After your landscapes are installed, how do you manage them in a sustainable way?”


The image of that first prairie burn resurfaced as well as the management of countless other prairies since then. I had managed prairies with fire, mowing, grazing and herbicides. Until now, I didn’t really think about defining the sustainability of my techniques.

I preface my answer with one of my favorite go-to concepts.


“I would say that I’m mindful in my approach to management.”


Several nodding heads from the audience affirm my yogic wannabe lifestyle response and echoes a powerful point made by keynote speaker, Heather Venhaus earlier that day.  One of her take-home messages was being mindful about how we’re managing our landscapes; adopting adaptive management strategies instead of adhering to guidelines as though they were dogma.


To illustrate my point I tell a story about using prescribed burns to manage a prairie landscape; a useful tool whose frequency always bothered me, especially if sustainable management of a diversity of critters is the goal.


“I was hired as a consultant to evaluate a large prairie spread over the corporate park of a high end client. The grounds manager was under the impression that he had to burn this prairie every year. When I told him not to burn in the spring, he looked at me with suspicion, like I had just told him to till half of it under. After explaining the concept of using a mosaic of strategies to manage his prairie, to include doing nothing at times, instead of a broad burn stroke every year, he was hesitantly sold, but still needed me to write up my recommendations with supporting evidence as to why he shouldn’t burn…so he wouldn’t get into trouble with his boss.”


I wonder if people really consider what happens to critters that cannot escape the flames.

What happens to carpenter bees that overwinter in plant stems? Or great spangled fritillary butterflies that overwinter as young caterpillars, clinging to the stalks of grasses. What happens to them when a spring burn whips through the prairie? And ornate box turtles that unsuccessfully attempt to close themselves into their shells to wait out the flames of a late spring burn? How do they maintain a sustainable population if their prairie habitats are frequently burned? What about birds, like Henslow’s sparrows, who need thatchy ground cover in their grassland habitat to rear their young? What happens to their overall nest success if thatch is never allowed to accumulate because of frequent burning?


For all but the sparrow, who seek “thatchier” grasslands (if available) to rear their young, this corporate prairie had become an ecological trap or sink; an attractive habitat to lure them in to their eventual demise.


Don’t get me wrong, my prairie roots run deep and I understand the importance of fire as well as grazing and other disturbances to the long-term maintenance of a diverse prairie ecosystem. We need to be mindful, however, as to how we use this powerful tool to manage what little prairie habitat we have left.


Fire favors some species to the exclusion of others.


I share Chris Helzer’s concern that “using frequent burning as a management regime always favors the same species year after year, because other species are – by default – being perennially managed against.” And that ”arguments for frequent fire tend to focus primarily on plant diversity rather than the overall diversity of the prairie community, including both vertebrate and invertebrate animals – not to mention fungi, bacteria, and other organisms”.


The Iowa Prairie Network’s approach to fire seems mindful to me. Their recommendations include burning small linear patches on a rotational basis by biological community, incorporating mowing and grazing into 10 year minimum burn cycles instead of the standard 2 to 3, minimizing backfires and subsequent intense slow heat and avoiding relighting patches skipped by burns as refuge maintenance.


Burning, like any tool we use to manage our landscapes needs to be used carefully. Altering a predetermined course based on research and our own inherent gut-feel is a mindful approach to sustainable management if overall diversity is the goal.


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