Brett Blank: Prescribed fires can result in healthy grasslands, habitat for GFP

Brett Blank
South Dakota GFP

Prescribed fire is a great tool that we utilize to promote healthy grasslands and improve habitat on our game production areas.

The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks doesn’t put fire on the ground because it’s fun. We have goals and objectives for every single unit that is planned.

Our No. 1 goal for every fire is the safety of our team and the public. We take every precaution we can to mitigate any chances of our controlled burn becoming a wildfire. These safety measures include a very detailed fire plan, educated and experienced personnel, prepped fire breaks, ample on-site equipment and burning under the correct environmental conditions, to name a few. Safety is and always will be our highest priority.

With fire, we have every intent to make a positive impact on our resources. This might include objectives such as increased species diversity, reduction of invasive trees, removal of the “duff” layer and a decrease in invasive, cool-season grasses such as smooth brome grass and Kentucky bluegrass that compete with native species. Meeting these objectives gives us our best opportunity to increase the quality of habitat for wildlife and our users of the game production areas.

Grasslands have evolved with fire over thousands of years, and our prairies need fire to stay healthy. Fire promotes vigor and health in a variety of species. Over time, grassland species can decline with a lack of proper management.

Fire is also a great tool to minimize invasive trees. It’s very labor intensive to cut hundreds of eastern redcedars out of a pasture that are hindering the potential of that pasture, whether it be for wildlife in general or in terms of pounds per acre for cattle use. Burning a cedar-invaded grassland when the cedars are small provides the best opportunity for control.

One concern that is always brought up about prescribed fire is the burning of nests. There is no denying that this does happen, however most of the birds will re-nest in adjacent habitat left on the area. Therefore, it’s a good idea to only burn parts of an area and not the entire piece. The small net loss is well worth the long-term gain that you get from the results of prescribed fire. The health of the grassland for the years to come and the nesting that is produced from the will far outweigh the one-time losses.

Fire, used as a management tool, is highly beneficial, but is intimidating to most people. I believe this mostly stems from the high publicity wildfires receive. Once the right strategies are in place and they are carefully planned out with goals and objectives in mind, prescribed fire can be done effectively and safely.

If you are someone who would like to implement prescribed fire on your own property, but feel burdened by the thought, there is an opportunity for you. On June 3, there will be a fire workshop at the Oak Lake Field Station near Astoria. This course runs from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and is an introductory course that offers the basics of planning, preparing and conducting a safe and effective prescribed fire. It will include classroom time, equipment training, skills and participation in live fire. Limited space is available. Contact Pete Bauman or Jan Rounds at the South Dakota State University Extension office in Watertown at 605-882-5140 to sign up.

Brett Blank is a resource biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks.