MURALT PRAIRIE, GREEN COUNTY - State land managers are figuratively burning the midnight oil these days to preserve and restore some of the state's most endangered prairies and woodlands, and to keep oaks a part of southern Wisconsin's landscape and heritage.
The cold, wet spring delayed nearly a month the carefully conducted fires, or "prescribed burns," managers set on State Natural Areas to help restore prairies and woodlands and improve habitat.
Such prescribed burns also are set for many of the same reasons on state wildlife areas, public hunting grounds, state fisheries areas and state parks managed by the Department of Natural resources. But the inability to conduct such burns can have an especially profound impact on State Natural Areas, which harbor some of the best remaining examples of Wisconsin's pre-settlement landscapes and are the last and best refuges for scores of rare plants and animals, says Matt Zine, a conservation biologist and longtime leader of the State Natural Areas crew in southern Wisconsin.
"These plant communities evolved with fire, so prescribed burning is a critical part of our restoration efforts," Zine says.
Half-way through the typical burn season, his State Natural Areas crew had conducted only two of the 25 done in a typical spring burn season. So with warmer weather arriving, Zine and State Natural Area crews across the state have been playing catch up.
In a little more than a week, Zine's southern Wisconsin crew increased their total to 11 sites burned in Grant, Lafayette, Dane, Green, Sauk, and Waukesha counties.
"Prescribed burning is our best, and most important tool to help us control invasive species like garlic mustard and stimulate the native ground layer, so we really want to get these burns in if conditions allow," he says.
Prescribed burning helps boost seed production, enhancing native plants on the site and producing excess seed to plant on former agriculture lands, he says. Importantly, prescribed burning is helping keep oak on the landscape in southern Wisconsin, Zine says.
Oaks tolerate fire better than most tree species and so had the upper hand in the fire-prone landscape before European settlement of Wisconsin. Oak have thick bark that helps them withstand the intensity of fire.
After settlement put an end to most fires, oaks lost their advantage and their Achilles heel became apparent - namely, that they don't tolerate shade very well, Zine says.
"The result is that all of the fire-intolerant species previously held in check by fire are now shading out young oaks and largely replacing them on much of the Wisconsin landscape," he says.
"That's why prescribed burns are so important."
Prescribed burns are also very carefully planned and executed. Before any burn is conducted, experienced and trained personnel assess the area to determine the wind direction and speed, relative humidity, fuel moisture levels, safety concerns, and a host of other factors, Zine says. Qualified personnel control fire behavior by using comprehensive planning/application and specialized fire equipment. Local police and fire officials are notified when and where burns will take place so they can respond to people who report that they are seeing smoke from an area.
More information, lists of sites planned for prescribed burns this spring on a variety of DNR properties, and a slide show illustrating key steps, safety equipment and techniques are available by searching the DNR website for "prescribed burn." More information specifically about efforts by Zine and his crew to use prescribed fire to help restore and maintain Wisconsin's prairies and oak savannas is found in the Natural Resources magazine article, "Protecting Nature's Middle Class."
The typical burning season in southern Wisconsin runs from about the last week in March through the first week in May, between the time that snow has melted and significant green-up has occurred. Land managers also carefully control the prescribed burns to accomplish goals for the site while avoiding harming the rare species these State Natural Areas harbor. A number of rare amphibians and reptiles, for example, will emerge from hibernation once significant warm-up occurs, and require careful consideration when conducting burns, Zine says.
"It's always a narrow window of opportunity, and even more so this spring," he says. "If we can get a good stretch of burning weather, however, we hope we'll be able to get our prescribed burns done on the most critical sites and can keep making progress on restoring and maintaining these important areas for now and future generations to enjoy."
Wisconsin has the nation's oldest and largest State Natural Areas program, with 653 designated State Natural Areas preserving 358,000 acres of prairies, forests, and wetlands. State Natural Areas are generally open to hiking, hunting, fishing, trapping and wildlife watching although most lack public facilities like restrooms and improved parking lots.
FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Matt Zine, 608-266-8916