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Carol Wilcox keeping an eye on the controlled burn on our planted prairie. Dan Wilcox photo.

Wild Side: Hot time on the prairie

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outdoors Ellsworth,Wisconsin 54011
Pierce County Herald
Wild Side: Hot time on the prairie
Ellsworth Wisconsin 126 S. Chestnut St. 54011

Fire has played a key role in development of North American grassland ecosystems. The combination of droughts, dry vegetation and strong winds made fires on the prairie frequent disturbance events. In addition to fires naturally ignited by lightning strikes, Native Americans often started grassland fires to drive game and to alter habitat conditions.


The prairie and oak savanna vegetation communities in our area are adapted to fire. Since European settlement in the 1840s, most of the prairie and oak savanna vegetation has disappeared due to fire suppression, agriculture and urban development. Native oak savanna is now one of the most endangered plant communities. There are some notable remnant patches of prairie and oak savanna in our area where many species of native plants still occur.

Some of the prairie and oak savanna remnants in our area are now protected and managed to maintain their diverse plant and wildlife communities. The Foster Cemetery on the west side of River Falls overlooking the Kinnickinnic River is a 35-acre oak savanna area that has been carefully restored by volunteers from The Prairie Enthusiasts. The Kinnickinnic River Wet Prairie east of River Falls is a DNR property with native vegetation that has persisted despite a history of grazing. Extensive areas of native prairie still occur in the Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area near Durand.

According to the state report, Wisconsin's Changing Climate: Impacts and Adaptation, climate change models indicate a future shift to increased moisture and temperature. These changes favor invasive plant and tree species over native prairie. The scarcity of remaining native prairie and the effects of climate change call for efforts to restore prairie and savanna communities.

The DNR established the Western Prairie Habitat Restoration Area in 1999 in St. Croix and Polk Counties with a goal to permanently restore and protect 15,000 acres of grassland. The DNR has been busy. Now there are 15 protected properties in the project area. Grasslands are maintained and restored through prescribed burning, mowing, herbicide application and limited haying or gazing.

The DNR manages many additional wildlife management areas in our area where they have restored grassland. Part of the DNR land along the South Fork east of River Falls was burned this spring.

The Prairie Enthusiasts have been busy too throughout much of Wisconsin. The St. Croix Valley chapter currently is restoring prairie and oak savanna on six properties in our area. They have become very experienced in conducting controlled burns and have specialized equipment to do it safely.

We restored prairie vegetation on about 30 acres on our property starting in 2004. The DNR seeded some small patches with a diverse mix of native grasses and forbs. We burned those areas in the spring of 2006 to suppress non-native cool season grasses. The response was spectacular with tall grasses and many flowers.

In 2006 we burned about 26 acres of old field in the spring. I leveled out the anthills and picked rock so that the field could be sprayed with herbicide to kill the non-native old field vegetation. We rented a drill from the DNR and planted four species of native grasses and many species of native forbes. Germination of the planted seed was good but the field grew up into a tangle of non-native weeds in the first year. In the second year we burned the field in the spring and were rewarded with lush growth of native grasses and forbs.

Since then, we burned our planted prairie a couple more times in the spring. It became a gold mine of habitat for grassland birds, pheasants, deer, and turkeys. We've been frustrated in the last few years trying to do another spring burn. It was too wet, too dry and windy, or people to help weren't available and we were working.

This year we had a burning ban due to dry conditions. A couple of weeks ago we had some welcome rain. On Monday last week it was cold and even snowed in the morning. We called friends and neighbors to do a burn on Tuesday. Fortunately the weather cleared up Monday afternoon but a frosty night left the ground white on Tuesday morning. It was looking like we would need napalm to light a fire but then the clouds cleared off, the sun came out, and a south wind dried out the dead vegetation.

Mike Miller, Susan Goode and Dennis Anderson of River Falls and our neighbor Brian Hopp, my wife Carol and I were the burn crew. Miller and Hopp brought their ATV machines equipped with water tanks and sprayers. The rest of us carried backpack sprayers. The gentle southwest wind was ideal. We burned a down-wind back-fire around the field and then lit up the upwind side along the road. The fire roared downwind and it was all over in minutes.

That was another successful controlled burn, the best kind without any drama. We look forward to the lush tall grasses and flowers again this year.

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