Fire rejuvenates prairie land

PRAIRIE FIRE did its job of reinvigorating the grasses and forbs at the Grimes Farm. If you were one of the public watching in person, you saw how the fire proceeded in an orderly manner to burn only what was required. To do so requires a bit of preparation. That preparation includes establishing fire breaks, lines of areas with either closely mowed pathways, or in the case at the Grimes Farm, using existing hiking trails or bike path segments. These fire breaks have reduced or no fuel load. A fire cannot go through an area if there is nothing to burn. And if a fire does try to crawl into or through a previously mowed fire break, the flame height is very low. These situations are monitored closely and if needed, a flapper tool pats out the oxygen of the small flames. And in case of a need, the MCCB staff used a water supply under pressure to spray water on small fire line encroachments.

The next factor, a big one indeed, is the right day with the right wind. When proper conditions allow, the prairie burn can be set. All of that came together last Tuesday evening. Light northerly winds were perfect for this site. The grasses were dry and ready. The MCCB staff was ready. The authorities that needed to know were given advanced notice. News releases and press releases were issued. Let the management work begin. The rest is history, a safe prescribed burn as intended.

For the public, the transformation will be most evident from now into the summer. Along one side of the bike path trail leading east from the Conservation Center, observe the contrast between the burned area on the north to the unburned area on the south. Both represent the man-made plantings of over a decade ago. One will “green up” quickly while the unburned area will take a bit longer for new growth to punch through the canopy of last year’s stems and stalks. But it will all turn green in time, and the flowers of the prairie will show their beauty alongside the big bluestem, sideoats gramma, Indiangrass and others.

The prairie landscape is a remnant of what once existed in the entire Midwest of North America. Tall grass prairie is what greeted the pioneers who traveled west from eastern parts of the young United States. Tall grass prairie, in Iowa at those times just prior to settlement, was the predominant plant cover on 85 percent of the surface. Thirteen percent of Iowa was forest lands near the big rivers and along inland streams. The remained land cover was water, two percent, a total for all river surfaces and all natural lakes and prairie pot hole landscapes of marshes and wetlands.

Iowa has been transformed since the mid 1800s. In fact, Iowa’s natural landscapes have been transformed into one of the most successful agricultural experiments ever. The deep rich dark top soils are in part the direct result of many thousands of years of geological changes since the last glacial ice took a pathway north to Canada. Since Mother Nature does not allow a vacuum, she saw to it that plants grew on exposed glacial tills. At first it was tundra-like plants, followed slowly over many millennia by encroachment of boreal forests. In time the forest species became a mix with hardwoods, and later a transformation to primarily hardwoods, and later on in this millennial countdown, grasses came to dominate in a landscape where natural climate changes to a drier environment gave the advantage to grasses. Fire helped maintain the advantage for grass. Over thousands of years, tall grass prairie species and hundreds of flowering forbs became the mainstay of the land’s cover.

Fast forward to today, Iowa now has less than one-tenth of one percent of its native prairie intact. These remnants are rare. And because they are rare they are worth conserving. Locally the Marietta Sand Prairie is one such remnant. It is an excellent example of native prairie. Botanists have identified at least 250 species of plants growing at this location. To the common person, who may not care especially for latin names for plants, it is enough to know that this little prairie has a lot going for it. Another way of looking at this grassland is to compare it to a history book with its pages open, ready for the reader to discover things about geology, botany, wildlife, and the interactions of natural history as life unfolds there year after year in this special place.

EARTH DAY was Tuesday, so today, I’ll share a few random observations accumulated over several decades of this scribe’s existence. Every day is “Earth Day” in the sense that we always need to be good stewards of the land, our air and water. Good stewards means doing practical things that protect and sustain natural resources for our benefit and use. Human kind is part of nature, we breathe and eat like any other critter. And we have the capacity as intelligent beings to change things, for the better or worse. How we do that as a society is always open for debate. But this I can recommend. Common sense solutions are not far off the right course. Those actions are also usually the most economically viable ways to conserve, sustain and produce the things we need. In addition, this scribe does not bow down to the ‘alter of environmental worship’ that seems to pervade some schools of thought. The earth goes through its cycles of natural changes. Humans, if we are smart, will learn to adapt to the things we can do nothing about.

FISH stocks are looking good. DNR fisheries bureau folks have completed the netting operations for the year on the Mississippi River and in the natural great lakes region of Okoboji and Spirit Lake. The hatcheries are now filled to capacity with 1,020 quarts of walleye eggs at Spirit Lake and another 760 quarts at Rathbun’s hatchery. A late ice out helped this spring as it allowed the netting operations to be timed perfectly to brood fish full of spawn. Eggs were obtained from Muskies, Northerns and Walleye. When added up, more than 200 million eggs were collected. This will allow some experimenting with stocking of walleye fry. The alternative also remains to grow the fry in the hatchery to fingerling status. In either case if it works, there will be a huge new year class of walleye to fish for during the next several years. A past stocking form 2011 is now showing up with many 15 inch walleye, the minimum size to keep.

STATE SALE of excess and confiscated equipment will be held May 10 in Des Moines at the State Fairgrounds. This sale will include nearly 700 firearms, bows and tree stands, traps and related gear. It is an “as is” sale, no warranties included, and no buyer’s premium added to the sale. Pre-registration for the auction is from 4 to 6 p.m. on May 9 or prior to the sale. Doors open at 7 a.m. Sales begin at 8 a.m. To see a sale bill, check out www.iowadnr.gov/Hunting.aspx. Sale bills will not be mailed.

For your funny bone: When the chips are down, the buffalo is empty. Montana bumper sticker.

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.