Native Americans used fire to manage rangeland for thousands of years, but a 100-year burning hiatus followed European settlement of the North American heartland. Those decades of fire suppression allowed invasive plants to negatively alter the landscape. Now, rangeland researchers and managers are proponents of burning, when done safely and in a controlled setting.
This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.
Fire on the plains is today’s topic. The intentional burning of the landscape to produce a desired result. Fire has played a major role forming the landscape of the great plains for tens of thousands of years.
“Fire was sort of a frequent event. You would have had fires that were either set by lightening or, more often, they were set by Native Americans who used fire to manage the habitat for game animals.” That’s The Nature Conservancy’s Chris Hise. He manages the Four Canyon Preserve in northwest Oklahoma. “Since European settlement, we’ve completely altered that fire ecology.”
Before the Europeans, Native Americans used fire not only to manage game-animal habitat but also to burn forest undergrowth, to rid weeds and to take out small trees to provide better sight to the horizon for their security. Sam Fuhlendorf talks about that — talks about native people and their use of fire. At Oklahoma State, Dr. Fuhlendorf is the Sarkey’s Distinguished Professor in the department of Natural-Resource Ecology & Management.
“The most important people in certain cultures knew how to use fire, and there are quotes that they would use fire for 70 different things — and I always say, including one that was just for the hell of it. They used fire for war and for tracking game. It was sort of viewed as something that was used by people who were uncultured, so when the Europeans moved out into the landscape that was one of the first things we stopped.”
Fuhlendorf says sociologists are working to understand why people prefer the kinds of landscapes they do.
“It is very much cultural. Our European heritage sort of makes us like more clean landscapes that are uniform and very park looking. In addition to that, fires burn grass so it must be competing with forage. Grass can either be fuel or forage was sort of the view. In Texas, in the early part of the 1900s, it was actually a felony to burn grass. They had a strong culture that was a negative thing and some of it was for good reason. If you have a nice frame house out on the prairie, that’s not a very pleasant sight to see a billowing cloud of smoke coming your direction.”
So European settlement of the great plains ushered in almost a no-burn era. And that got things out of balance when pesky invasive plants disturbed the landscape.
“Fire was probably one of the things that really kept a lot of our trees and a lot of our other invasives really at bay.” This is Kirk Schroeder, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Grand Island. “There’s really a really, really strong effort from a lot of the resource organizations to try to go out and promote fire and try to get fire incorporated back in as part of a producer’s natural operation — not only to try to control trees, but also to try to promote and stimulate new grass growth, and try to get back to that natural part of the grassland process again.”
Terry Bidwell puts it another way. “Research has clearly shown that there is no substitute for fire.” Bidwell is professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Oklahoma State. “And if you don’t burn, you’re not taking care of your land. Now that’s a little rough on some people, and they might be a little offended, but that’s what the science has to say about it. Fire is really important, and if we pull fire out of the landscape we’ve got a very dysfunctional landscape.”
Across the plains, ranchers and producers are waking up to the benefits of prescribed burning.
It’s Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. This program is made possible by the Playa Lakes, and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures.
Original broadcast: July 2012