Restoring More than Animals – Returning Fire to American Prairie Reserve

A controlled burn on American Prairie Reserve aims to expand prairie dog habitat. Photos: Dennis Lingohr/APR

 

This fall, American Prairie Reserve conducted our first controlled burn of nearly 900 acres in an effort to expand prairie dog habitat and restore an important ecological process to the landscape. The fire was a result of collaboration between the Reserve, US Fish & Wildlife Service, which provided expertise, personnel and equipment to conduct the burn, and World Wildlife Fund, which was instrumental in project and experimental design, securing funding, and arranging for pre- and post-burn scientific monitoring.

 

 

Damien Austin, Senior Reserve Foreman, explained the purpose of the burn as two-fold. “The ultimate goal of the Reserve is to be a fully functioning ecosystem, and in order to do that we need to bring back more than just animals, we need processes like fire. Species here are adapted to it, and burning helps restart vegetation in a way that’s beneficial to wildlife.”

 

Preparing for the burn by "blacklining" several days before the fire (left) and doing a final spot weather check the morning of the burn (right). Photos: Dennis Lingohr/APR

 

The fire was also specifically designed and positioned in such a way to benefit a nearby prairie dog town. Damien explains that by reducing shrubs like greasewood and cover for predators, prairie dogs can better see threats. As grasses grow back first, both prairie dogs and bison will feast on the new plants and help maintain the newly created mosaic. In fact, the bison have been attracted to the site since the burn and will spend the winter grazing the area, which was already coming up green in late October.

Even after a year of planning, the day of the fire was more solemn and serious than celebratory. Once very strict conditions were met regarding regional fire danger and weather and our neighbors had been notified, a group of about twenty people gathered at Reserve Headquarters. The USFWS burn boss assigned tasks and walked through the burn plan. Discussion also included the location of safety areas, structures and people in the area, contingency plans and, of course, how to work around very curious bison.

 

USFWS personnel lighting and managing the burn. Photos: Dennis Lingohr/APR

 

The group then mobilized in the northeast corner of the burn area, which had been previously prepped by APR and USFWS staff. The crew went through final preparations, a spot weather forecast for the location and signing off on paperwork. A small test fire was lit to see how quickly fuels were being consumed, observe the resultant smoke and gauge the impact of wind.

Slightly larger areas in the northeast were set on fire before slowly working around the edges of the burn area to the southern end over several hours. From there, the wind naturally pushed the fire back into the northeast corner, where no fuels remained and the burn was complete.

 

Immediately following (left) and two weeks after (right) the controlled burn. Photos: Dennis Lingohr/APR

 

For Damien and our partners, however, this burn project is far from over. With the help of scientists from World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society, ongoing monitoring of the burn area will provide us will valuable information in four areas:

  • Changes to vegetation cover and the responsiveness of native plants/grasses;
  • Changes to the size of the nearby prairie dog town;
  • The response of grassland bird populations; and
  • If/how much bison change their movement (thanks to satellite collar tracking data before and after the burn).

While the Reserve doesn’t have plans for future burns at this time, one of our long-term goals is to conduct a burn every year on Reserve-owned lands. In the meantime, we look forward to keeping you updated on this project and are grateful for the support and expertise that helped make this milestone possible.

 

American Prairie Reserve (APR) is assembling a world class wildlife reserve in northern Montana, with the goal of one day creating a seamless 3.5 million acre grassland ecosystem. APR’s President Sean Gerrity is a National Geographic Fellow. Learn more about the Reserve, including progress to date and bison restoration efforts, on the Reserve’s website.

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American Prairie Reserve (APR) is assembling a world class wildlife park in northern Montana, with the goal of one day creating a seamless 3.5 million acre grassland ecosystem. Learn more about APR, including our bison restoration efforts and how to visit, on the Reserve's website.