Fire ecology in the southeast
Fire plays a significant role in shaping the southeast’s wildlife habitats. Historically, frequent fires were a natural part of the southeastern landscape. Many species of plants and animals are fire dependent, requiring fire to live and thrive while many others are fire-adapted, able to live in a frequently burned ecosystem.
Across the southeast are numerous examples of fire-dependent and fire-adapted plants and animals. One prominent ecosystem is the longleaf pine-wiregrass woodlands. Frequent, low intensity fires in this system help keep the shrubs and woody plants low in stature and promote more open woods that are dominated by grasses. During the times when repeated frequent fire occurred on the landscape, early settlers described an open forest of tall pines with a grassy understory that you could see through for a long distance. One grass that occurs in the longleaf pine woods that is fire-dependent is wiregrass. This grass requires fire for reproduction and success, without frequent fires in the warm seasons the plants can not reproduce well.
There are many other examples across the southeast of fire-adapted species of plants and animals that include the indigo snakes, henslow’s sparrow, red-cockaded woodpecker, carnivorous plants, Florida scrub jays, marsh rabbits, Florida panthers, gopher tortoise, gopher frogs, flatwoods salamanders, sandhill cranes, Bachman’s sparrow, American Chaffseed, and many others. All of these species have learned to live and thrive in the presence of fire. To learn more about the fire effects on these species go to the “species profiles” link below.
The FWS recognizes the importance of the role of fire in the southeastern ecosystems and uses prescribed fire as a primary tool to manage habitat for its fire-adapted species (see prescribed fire link below). Fire is used in a controlled setting to mimic what once was the natural role of fire in the landscape. The effects of the prescribed burns are studied and monitored under programs developed to determine if the burns are meeting their burn objectives for both reducing the risk of wildfire and promoting fire-adapted species habitat. General burn objectives include; reducing hazardous fuels, promoting native species, reducing invasive species, reducing woody shrubs encroachment, promoting habitat for threatened and endangered species, and site preparation for pine regeneration, to name a few.