Visiting the Prairie After the Burn

Last Sunday we burned 16 acres of our prairie.  It was a phenomenal sight, watching all that  vegetation go up in flames.

Today I went back out to see what I could see.  Lots of folks wonder why we burn.  Read on and I shall explain.

One of the big reasons is that the prairie ecosystem, and the oak savannas of this  part of Michigan, evolved with fire.  In fire-dependent ecosystems, fire is actually required to a) open the seeds of certain plants (no fire, no germination), b) keep the area from becoming overgrown with shrubs and tress (keeps succession at bay), c) replenish the soil with nutrients, d) keep non-native invasive plants at bay.

Since the day we burned, the weather has been cold – winter refusing to completely let go.  Had spring been more forceful in her arrival, we’d be seeing a flush of green across the burned landscape.  The dark, charred soil warms up more quickly than it would if the light-colored vegetation remained above.  This creates the perfect environment for seeds to sprout.

Despite the chilly days and frosty nights, new life is already starting to appear:

As I continued my walk, I came across this pile of deer bones.  Could be from a carcass we dragged out in the winter to feed the eagles and other carrion eaters.  Or it could be from a deer that died during the winter from natural causes.  Or…it could’ve been killed by predators.

I had heard from the Tuesday Morning Group that they had found coyote dens out in the burned area.  Soon I saw them, too – the stark contrast of the white sand against the blackened earth made them pretty obvious.  Here are the three doorways to the den(s).

As I reached the end of the burn, one of the reasons for maintaining native ecosystems became apparent.  Here we are looking at the restored end of the prairie:

And here we are looking at the unrestored area:

Do you see the difference?  Take another look – first the restored, then the unrestored.  Go ahead…I’ll wait.  Scroll up and back.

do-dee-do-do do…

Did you see it?  If not, I’ll give you a clue:

Ta-da!  That’s it.  It is a clump of native grass.  Where native grasses are restored and maintained, you have a field/prairie with diversity!  Native grasses grow in these clumps, and the clumps are widely spaced apart.  Non-native grasses tend to grow in thick mats.  Why does this make a difference?  Because with the native grasses, other plants, like forbs (think flowers) can grow in the spaces.  Diversity!  Not only that, but the spaces also give wildlife room to move around, and the clumps provide shelter to small mammals and birds.  To top it all off, in the winter, native grasses remain tall and rigid, whereas the non-native ones just flatten out under the burden of snow – no shelter there at all.

So, come on out and take a look at the burn.  Come back each week, and I guarantee you will see it change right before your eyes.  In fact, I think I may even start to do a series of photos each week taken from the same spot…then we can do a time lapse view as the prairie greens up with spring.


About Dahlem Center

The Dahlem Center is a non-profit nature center/environmental education center located on almost 300 acres just south of the city of Jackson, Michigan. The Center is one arm of the Dahlem Conservancy, which includes land conservancy and stewardship in its mission.
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2 Responses to Visiting the Prairie After the Burn

  1. JMC says:

    Hi – I’m really enjoying the blog! We live about halfway between Jackson and Lansing. Your blog is like looking over into the neighbors’ place

    Your prairie burn and its progress is fascinating. Could you tell more about it? In the restored area, did you first clear the ground and plant with native species? Or did you just start burning an old field? Is the burn going to be enough in the unrestored area to start it on the way to restoration, or will you go in later and plant? What happens to the herps and rodents and insect eggs and chrysalises – are they deep enough in the earth to be untouched?

    I’ll be following the progress with interest.

    Thanks very much.

    • dahlemcenter says:

      So many great questions, Jane! I don’t have all the answers, though. Let’s see what I can tell you off the top of my head. The section that was restored was done several years ago, long before my time here (four months this Friday), so I don’t know how the restoration was handled. I will see what I can find out and get back to you on this. What we are doing now, though, is burning sections at a time, so the whole grassland is not torched all at once. This allows any insect eggs to survive in the unburned sections. The day we burned was cool enough (we got snow) that herps were underground. Because it was during the day, the small mammals were also underground, since they are mostly crepuscular. It was early enough in the season that birds had not nested yet – in fact, most had not yet returned from their winter in the south. Invasive shrubs are being systematically cut down and the stumps dabbed with herbicide to kill them off. The spotted knapweed will also be singled out a bit later this spring for individual burning when the rosettes form and then treating with an herbicide. It is a difficult plant to get under control once established. We may plant some native species, but I believe we are going to count on the seeds stored in the ground for most of the generation of these desireables. By controlling the non-natives, we give the natives a chance to get established from the existing seed bank. The area we burned last month will not be burned again for another three years or so, which gives the plants (and insects) lots of time to “recover.”

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