Fire on the Prairie Protects Communities and Native Species
Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge - 2004
At Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge in rural Kansas , prescribed fire and mechanical removal of trees are the tools of choice for reducing hazardous fuels while restoring native prairies and the grassland birds that depend on them.
As part of its wildland urban interface program to protect nearby communities from potentially damaging wildfire, managers hired a contractor in 2003 to reduce hazardous fuels by cutting and piling non-native Siberian elm, Russian olive, honey locust, black locust and eastern red cedar that have encroached on the prairie. The piles were then burned by refuge personnel. Nine local volunteers regularly help the refuge by cutting some of these trees into firewood. A prison work crew of seven routinely works at the refuge preparing areas for prescribed burns and mechanical treatments.
Dead standing timber is being burned away on other parts of the refuge to enable staff to physically enter the areas to control noxious weeds. In addition to providing safer conditions, fuels reduction results in open areas for sandhill cranes, waterfowl and shorebirds and creates better hunting access. Fire also stunts sprouting cottonwood and willow trees, creating better habitat for the nesting.
The timing of prescribed fires on this refuge is one of the keys to successfully reducing risk, while restoring open, native habitat: Late spring burns promote native warm season grasses by getting rid of the non-native grasses that grow primarily in the cool season. Another success factor is the support the refuge receives from neighboring Quivira NWR, since Kirwin has no fire staff of its own. The Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District in Nebraska also provides essential help, as do the firefighters of two local volunteer fire departments who are the first responders when wildfire strikes the refuge.
While protecting human life and property is the top priority of the refuge's fire program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also entrusted by the Congress to protect wildlife communities. Birds such as the greater prairie chicken and dickcissel, among dozens of others, depend on the characteristics of prairies to live and breed successfully. These two species are among dozens of grassland birds across the country that have the dubious distinction of being one of the fastest declining groups of birds in North America, so fire managers at Kirwin carefully protect nearby communities, while strategically improving habitat for its fragile feathered residents.
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