Historically, frequent fires maintained native grasslands by preventing most trees and shrubs from becoming well established. However, during the 1900's, these fires also destroyed the homes, possessions, and crops of European Americans. These settlers then made it a responsibility to prevent fires as much as possible. Suppressing fires for more than 100 years allowed shrubs and aspen trees to expand over the prairie landscape, leading to changes in the wildlife communities. Over the years, these changes in wildlife populations became noticed, and the importance of fire as a management tool became known.
Fire is an important aspect of prairie restoration and maintenance. Refuge staff use prescribed burning to mimic the effects of natural fires and to be used to maintain the health of a prairie. Fires as a management tool is used to remove vegetation litter, control the spread of non-native plant species, stimulate new plant growth, and can be used to prepare ground for restoration. After fires, native grasses and wildflowers replace the woody plants.
Herds of bison once grazed the grasslands of this region, stimulating the native grasses to "tiller", or spread, using their root systems. When grasses tiller, they can fill in areas cleared of trees, shrubs, and exotic grasses (such as Smooth brome). As bison herds diminished, the composition of grassland plant and animal species began to change dramatically. Today, cattle are used to mimic the effects of bison grazing. Native prairie plants adapted to how bison and other herbivores used the prairie. Grazing, based on the bison model, is now used to maintain a diverse and healthy prairie.
Grazing is a management practice that can maintain or increase the health of a prairie when used correctly. By varying the intensity, frequency, and timing of grazing, Refuge staff can target different plant species (such as invasive cool season grasses), reduce the amount of ground litter, and increase the structural diversity (range of heights and plant forms) of a prairie. This practice can be used to prepare ground for restoration, to increase the attractiveness for ground-nesting migratory birds and waterfowl, and to mimic a time when bison trampled and grazed large expanses of prairie.
Noxious Weed Control
The spread of noxious weeds has been difficult and expensive for refuge managers. Leafy Spurge is perhaps the most difficult of all exotic plants on the refuge. It requires treatment beyond fire and grazing to control. Current techniques include introducing spurge-eating flea beetles, limited herbicide application, and mowing.
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A rare and declining songbird of the northern prairie, Sprague's Pipit is a small bird of the open grasslands. Though it feeds and nests exclusively on the ground, the species performs the longest known flight display of any bird.