Burnin’ for Spring

Seth Gibson, Water Resources Coordinator

Like most jobs in the field of conservation, my day to day work is largely dependent on the weather and therefore the season.  Spring means it’s time to start habitat work and the tree sale is in full swing. Most of our habitat work revolves around out priority species, which are pheasants, pollinators such as bees and monarchs, and rabbits. It also means spending time refreshing myself on what different ecological elements make ideal habitat for our priority species and species our customers are commonly asking about. This entails learning about the characteristic of the trees and grass varieties involved in our various projects. Habitat management, however, extends far beyond just ensuring the right vegetation is in place and sometimes calls for unique approaches to enhancing the habitat. One of these tools for enhancing prairie habitat happens to be fire.

While typically thought of as a threat to our environment, fire is a naturally occurring part of Michigan’s ecosystem that has been phased out due to human involvement. Nowadays we induce the favorable effects of fire through what is referred to as a controlled or prescribed burn.  Unlike the wildfires that historically thrashed their way across the unsettled Michigan landscape, fires today are completed by trained professionals and move slowly across the ground leaving most small trees and shrubs. Specially trained crews wait until weather conditions are perfect in terms of things like humidity and wind direction, then they burn the intended area that is surrounded by “burn breaks” or barriers that the fire cannot cross.

Fire (prescribed burns) can have different benefits depending on the ecosystem and time of year. For example, in a prairie ecosystem, a fall burn will favor the regeneration of wildflower species while a spring burn will favor the regeneration of grasses. In addition, fire is an effective way to treat invasive species since many of them come from areas where fire is not common. The fires burn slow enough and with a low intensity which allows most animals adequate time to escape the fire. In most cases, the fires give birds and other wildlife access to the insects underneath. This is especially true with species such as pheasant and woodcock.

Currently, we’re in the process of prepping sites for this year’s habitat work. On three of our sites, including the prairie at Clinton Lakes Park, this means prepping for burns which will take place sometime in the next two weeks (weather permitting). Completing the burns in the spring minimizes the potential negative impacts on wildlife while maximizing the benefits to plants. Pheasants have not yet began nesting during this time of year and won’t start nesting until after the vegetation has already regrown. The purpose of these burns is to help promote native diversity and get rid of non-native species. Plants are also just starting to awaken from their winter dormancy and flourish after burns due to warmer soil temperatures and lack competition for light and other resources. Watch for habitat management activities at the Clinton Lakes Park during the next few weeks!

Contact Seth Gibson by email at Seth.Gibson@macd.org or by calling 989-534-3106