Using Prescribed Fire to Manage Early Successional Habitat
Community Members Learn about Prescribed Fire
The Natural Lands Project, an initiative started by the Center for Environment & Society and the Chester River Association in 2015, is currently working with community landowners in Kent and Queen Anne’s Counties to add wildlife habitat to marginal cropland to benefit declining early successional species. NLP’s vision is to create a balance between agricultural production and natural lands. By increasing early successional habitat on the upper shore, NLP hopes to accomplish two parallel goals: provide much-needed habitat for the charismatic Northern Bobwhite and help reduce non-point source pollution from entering local waterways.
The best way for NLP to help reverse bobwhite population declines and improve water quality is to plant native grasses and wildflowers, install hedgerows, and create or restore wetlands. “Marginal borders of crop fields planted with native grasses, with roots that can grow 15-20ft deep, will prevent excess nutrients and sediment from entering waterways,” says Dan Small, CES’s NLP coordinator. However, unlike a wetland which needs very little maintenance, buffers of native grasses require some form of management on a semi-annual basis to be the most beneficial for bobwhite and other ground dwelling birds.
Several management options are available to landowners to maintain native grasses from succeeding or becoming overgrown. According to Small, the best option is fire, burning under controlled conditions, or prescribed burning, has many benefits not only for the vegetation but also the wildlife that depends on the habitat. Local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and DNR staff conduct prescribed burns on private properties in addition to public land, but demand is high and not all properties get burned each year for a variety of reasons. “As we increase grassland habitat on the upper shore we need to provide area farmers and landowners the knowledge and expertise to conduct prescribed burns on their own properties,” says Small, “this workshop was a start of this.”
On December 5th and 6th CES hosted a two-day workshop for local community members and staff from several USDA NRCS offices interested in learning more about prescribed fire. Five experienced professional wildland firefighters conducted the workshop, led by Chris Robertson, the MD DNR regional fire manager who organized the presenters for the workshop.
The first day of the workshop took place in the Norman James Theater on campus and consisted of lectures and exercises covering a variety of topics dealing with prescribed fire. The day was organized to give workshop attendees an introduction all aspects of prescribed fire including fire behavior, state and county regulations, safety, fuels and fuel models, smoke management, weather, contingency planning, firing techniques, wildland urban interface issues and also why and how to use fire as a beneficial wildlife habitat management tool.
On the second day of the workshop participants put the lessons learned from indoor portion of the workshop into action. The 36 participants and four wildland fire fighters met on Chino Farms, CES’s research farm, for the field portion of the workshop. Staff at Chino Farms manages the extensive early successional grassland habitat on the property with prescribed fire on an annual basis. “It was a fantastic opportunity for us to showcase our restoration efforts and ongoing management on the farm,” said Small. Steve Hubner USFWS Forester, Gerald Vickers USFWS Regional Fire Management Specialist, Gilbert Wagner MD DNR Fire specialist and Chris Robertson conducted the prescribed burns demonstrating multiple firing techniques giving workshop participants the opportunity to see fire behavior up close and personal.
As the participants learned in the workshop there are myriad ways in which prescribed fire can be beneficial to wildlife. Josh Homyack, MD DNR Waterfowl Biologist, described how burning native warm season grasses every few years reduces encroaching saplings, promotes plant diversity and clears the ground of thatch buildup when grasses fall over and stack upon each other. The latter benefit being particularly crucial for bobwhite survival as they will quickly abandon grassland habitat if no management occurs. No wonder, Herbert Stoddard, a preeminent quail biologist coined the term “fire bird” when referring to the Northern bobwhite for their predilection for recently burned areas.
The four prescribed burns went off without a hitch and the burn team managed to get them all in before afternoon rains started. Participants left the workshop feeling confident armed with the knowledge learned in the lecture hall and experience gained by observing prescribed fire in action. Bob Ingersoll a fire workshop participant agreed, “While the book work that prefaced the burn was really needed, the actual hands on viewing of a burn was critical to place all the factors involved into the brain. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a functional burn is worth a thousand pictures.” With a couple more years of experience helping out on other prescribed burns, participants will have the knowledge, experience and confidence to conduct prescribed burns on their properties.