Prairie Burning
Timothy G. Weih, Ph.D.
University of Northern Iowa, USA
January 2017

A Prairie is an Ecosystem

A prairie is an ecosystem or a community of living plants and animals along with the nonliving components connected to where they live such as water, air, and soil. Most prairies are called grasslands because they don't have very many trees or shrubs growing in them. The word "prairie" is a French word used to describe a meadow grazed by cattle. Grazing by large animals, drought, and fire help to prevent the growth of shrubs and trees or woody plant growth from taking over the prairies.

Benefits of Prairie Grasses and Prairie Wildflowers

The many different varieties of grasses and wildflowers of the prairie not only provide food for large grazing animals such as deer, elk, and antelope; they also provide food, protection, and nesting sites for small animals like birds, frogs, toads, snakes, turtles, and many insects such as butterflies and bees.

Prairies also enhance enjoyment for people. People like to observe the interesting animals in the prairie and to look at the diverse, beautiful grasses and wildflowers.

Most of the plants in the prairie landscape are native to North America, meaning that they live naturally in North America and were not brought by settlers from other countries such as Europe, Asia, or Africa. Since they developed naturally, they are adapted to the climate and soils of North America which makes them tough or hardy for survival without people having to help them succeed.

Many prairie plants have very deep roots which help them to endure on their own during times of very little rainfall and are capable of withstanding high winds and torrential rains without washing away. Moreover, they can live through extreme temperatures from scorching hot to freezing cold.

It has become popular to plant prairie plants along roads and highways because they have been advocated to require minimal maintenance such as mowing, fertilizing, watering, and spraying for weed and insect control. Their deep roots help to keep soil from blowing or washing away. In addition the prairie plants furnish food, shelter, and nesting for wildlife and insects, along with providing beauty for people to look at. Prairie grasses and wildflowers are also planted in many parks and other public places for many of the same reasons.

Prairie Plant Survival

Prairie plants are not completely resistant to suffering and dying. Most need full, warm sunlight for survival. Trees, shrubs, and the dead leaves from the prairie plants themselves that die each winter, can shade new growth, and eventually cause the prairie plants to die. Most prairie grasses and prairie wildflowers are herbaceous perennials, meaning the above ground leaves and stems die to the ground each winter, but the roots and below ground leaf and stem shoots, remain alive and ready to grow again when warmed by the sun in the late spring.

In the past, nature provided wildfires started from lightening to burn off the accumulation of dead leaves thereby allowing warm sunlight to reach the new growing prairie plant shoots in the spring. Since most prairie grasses and prairie wildflowers have deep roots and below-ground shoots, they are able to survive fire.

Wildfire also killed young trees and shrubs, thereby keeping them from shading the prairie plants. Large grazing animals such as buffalo, deer, and antelope also helped remove the piling up dead leaf matter by eating it. If prairies are not burned or grazed, they will not survive, and they will soon be taken over by trees and shrubs, this is known as natural succession.

Problems with Prairies

It is more difficult to maintain prairies today. Wildfires usually threaten the many towns and homes that have been built close to the prairies, therefore people work to put the fires out. The millions of buffalo, deer, and antelope that once grazed the prairies by freely roaming through them unencumbered by fenced land, have dwindled in numbers and now are kept under more controlled conditions such as in prairie preserves, zoos, and wildlife parks.

The prairie areas that have been planted by people in parks and along highways either need to be regularly burned by people or mowed, or both, otherwise shrubs and trees will soon spread throughout them.

These maintenance practices have devastating consequences for the wildlife living in the prairie areas, especially the burning by people. It has become a widely spread practice of burning dead prairie plant leaves in the late spring, which also coincides with the nesting of many animals that typically live in them such as pheasants, quail, prairie chickens, rabbits, and mice. The fires not only kill the animals, it can destroy their nesting area, remove their protective cover, and eliminate their food sources. Even though wild turkeys mostly nest in the woods adjacent to prairies, the prairie provides the essential food that the young turkeys need to remain alive. Improper mowing practices can also have similar damaging effects on wildlife.

Change Prairie Maintenance Practices

The practice of people setting fires for maintaining prairie plant health, poses problems not only to people, but also to wildlife. Carefully planned mowing is the best alternative to keeping prairie plants healthy and reducing the risk of damaging wildlife. Mowing should be carefully timed to allow wildlife the time they need to nest and raise their young.

Change Man-Made Prairie Planting Goals

Large areas of prairie grasses and wildflowers can be difficult and costly to establish and maintain. Alternate considerations for growing prairie plants are to establish them in small, easily maintained areas in which people can enjoy their beauty, learn about the different grass and wildflower varieties that define North American prairies, and observe the butterflies, bees, and many other insects that find food, habitat, and shelter in them. These small planting areas could be established on the campuses of primary and secondary schools, universities, civic centers, parks, and the private grounds of businesses.

Closing Comments

Today, many civic and governmental agencies, along with special interest groups have become involved in developing large areas of man-made prairies in parks, along roads and highways, and other public places. Careful consideration needs be made regarding the goals and purposes for establishing these large prairie areas. Healthy prairies are not maintenance free and they can be very costly to establish. Some of the widespread maintenance practices such as burning and poorly timed mowing can have devastating consequences for the wildlife trying to live in them. Alternatives exist and should be considered.

Copyright © 2017 Timothy G. Weih, Ph.D.
University of Northern Iowa, USA

About Author / Additional Info:
I advocate for the well-being of people, wildlife, and the outdoor landscape through environmental conservation education.