Site 3 Prairie Management

Fire crews follow an in-depth plan and use special equipment to set, manage, and extinguish fires. USFWS photo of a fire crew using a drip torch to ignite a prescribed fire on a prairie.

It takes more than just planting prairie in order for it to flourish. The refuge staff apply a variety of habitat management tools including prescribed fire to maintain and enhance reconstructed prairie. Tallgrass prairie is a fire-dependent ecosystem, meaning fire is necessary to maintain the structure of the plant community.


Dense grasses provide ideal fuel for fire. Historically, fire shaped and maintained the prairie ecosystem. Native Americans intentionally set fires each year to attract grazing animals such as bison, elk, and deer, to reduce the danger of wildfire, to ease travel, and to increase visibility and safety. Prairie fires started by lightning were also a frequent occurrence.   

Prescribed fire crews strive to mimic natural fire patterns and leave some unburned areas for wildlife. Photo by Kristie Burns of a bison herd and a smoke plume on the prairie.

Native prairie grasses and wildflowers have adaptations or features that allow them to survive fire. Without the benefit of prescribed burning, fire-intolerant trees and shrubs invade the prairie. This can eventually lead to the establishment of trees and shrubs, which shade out prairie plants and further inhibit fire.


In order to replicate the beneficial effects of wildfires, trained staff conduct prescribed fires every year, rotating the burn sites throughout the refuge. The weather station, to the left of the maintenance buildings, provides critical information for planning prescribed fires. 

Invasive white and yellow sweet clover have a two year life cycle and form large patches. To stop them from spreading, these plants are mowed during their second year before they produce seeds. Photo by Neil Baalman of a tractor mowing.

In addition to fire, mowing and herbicide spraying are tools used to remove non-native invasive plants. A plant or animal is considered an invasive species when it is introduced to an area outside of its normal range and causes environmental and/or economic harm.

 

At the next stop, you can observe and compare a reconstructed prairie and an agricultural field. You will also learn how and why prairie benefits people. 

Staff spot spray herbicide on individual invasive plants, such as sericea lespedeza, because other methods of control will not work. USFWS photo of staff spraying invasive plants.