Tallgrass prairie is an endangered ecosystem in the Midwestern U.S. Prior to settlement by European immigrants, grasslands stretched from the west coast to the east and from Mexico to Canada. The Central Grasslands region or Eastern Great Plains was a vast sea of prairie with scattered savannahs and woodlands intermixed. Grasslands in this region are maintained by an interaction of disturbances such as fire, grazing/browsing, drought, and wind and ice storms. Fire, historically and currently, occurs via lightning strikes as well as from human sources. What is grassland?
Many people are surprised that natural resource management professionals actually light fires, purposefully. These prescribed fires serve to maintain grasslands by controlling tree invasion, recycling nutrients, and stimulating plant reproduction. Many of the remaining native grasslands in the region will disappear without the periodic application of fire. For example in the absence of fire, eastern redcedar can establish and become a thicket within 20 years and a forest within 40 years. Grassland plant and wildlife communities are dependent upon each other. Hence, fire supports healthy plant communities which also benefit wildlife.
Fire Ecology is the study of the effects of fire on living organisms and their environment (National Wildfire Coordinating Group/Fire Research and Management Exchange System). Analysis of fire as a management tool can aide us in understanding observed patterns in grassland plant and wildlife monitoring data. The fire ecology program of the Heartland I&M Network primarily assists parks in the Central Great Plains region which have grassland resources Fire map. Click here to learn more about fire effects monitoring.
What is a Grassland?
Native grasslands worldwide have a few things in common. Grasses take up the greatest area in the plant community, but there are actually more types of wildflowers. Native grasslands have similar climate in that they go through cycles of drought. Grasslands are also maintained by a combination of disturbances such as fire, grazing, and drought.
National Parks within the Heartland Network include a few types of grassland. Prairies have very few trees if any, and there may be some shrub species. Savannas are also a type of grassland, but they have trees, up to 3% canopy cover. There are also three types of prairie. Tallgrass prairie, the most common prairie type in the Heartland Network, often does have tall grass, but is characterized by certain species of plants such as big bluestem, switchgrass, little bluestem, and Indian grass rather than overall height. Shortgrass prairie is not found in within the Network Parks. It is short in stature and is dominated by grass species like buffalo grass and blue gramma. Mixed grass prairies are often medium stature but have a different suit of plants which includes some tallgrass prairie plants, short grass prairie plants, as well as some endemic mixed grass prairie plants. Mixed grass prairie is rare within the area encompassed by the Network.
Glades are also a type of grassland found in the Network. Glades are grassy openings within woodlands or prairies that have very shallow soil. There are glade specific plant species, but prairie species can also be found in them. Eastern redcedar trees can encroach and eliminate glade plants if fire is not applied at frequent enough intervals.
Fire Prescription Elements
Firefighters write a plan prior to going out to the field. This plan is called the prescription. It describes the conditions that are needed to safely conduct the burn and contingencies in case the conditions change.
Fire Effects Monitoring
The HTLN fire effects program is multifaceted. The long-term plant community monitoring program, ongoing for the last 10 years, measures plant species and abundances along with ground cover. The fire ecology program builds on that foundation by measuring fuel loads, fuel moisture, soil moisture, fire behavior, burn weather, and fire severity. We interpret these elements together with plant community data to help managers understand whether they are achieving their goals. This interpretation becomes even more powerful when we add wildlife data to the analysis. For example, vegetation structure is a key component of grassland bird habitat and it is directly affected by fire. By bringing together fire variables, measurements of vegetation structure, and grassland bird abundance and diversity provides a more comprehensive understanding of the ecosystem.
We use many of the same sampling protocols and sample sites previously developed by HTLN to avoid redundancy and increase data compatibility. Fuels and fire monitoring data are stored in the FEAT/FIREMON Integrated (FFI) database software.
Fire Ecology Monitoring Protocol .pdf (2.5 MB)
Leis, S. A., L. W. Morrison, J. L. Haack, M. S. Gaetani. 2011. Fire ecology monitoring protocol for the Heartland Inventory and Monitoring Network. Natural Resource Report NPS/HTLN/NRR—2011/294. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.
Fire effects monitoring in the Central Grasslands Region is a collaborative effort between the National Park Service Midwest Region Fire Ecology Program, the Heartland I&M Network (HTLN), and Missouri State University (MSU). The fire ecology team is housed within HTLN and is based at Missouri State University. The NPS Fire Ecology Program has provided funds to expand vital signs monitoring in parks with active fire programs, conduct focused analysis of vital signs data for fire effects, and collect data on fire specific variables. MSU provides scientific and administrative support.
The HTLN fire ecology team seeks to integrate ecosystems data with fire ecology data to strengthen understanding and interpretation of vital signs data with respect to management. Furthermore, the team collaborates with Parks and the Midwest region fire program to provide accurate spatial data and review plans.
HTLN fire has reached out internationally to share fire ecology information with South African, German, and Australian fire practitioners. Kruger National park has one of the oldest sets of experimental fire plots in the world. They have also implemented a research project to learn about the effects of ignition type and burn unit size on burn heterogeneity and biodiversity.
ResourcesManagement staff within this region often encounter similar management challenges and the fire ecology program serves as an information sharing link between these parks. The fire ecology program strives to provide feedback to resource managers on the use of fire in achieving management goals, as well as providing input on the development of fire related program goals. Analysis of fire as a management tool can also help us understand observed patterns in grassland plant and wildlife monitoring data. For more information on fire ecology in the Heartland I&M Network, please contact:
Great Plains Fire Science Exchange
Great Plains Fire Science Exchange is a knowledge exchange consortium developed to assist land managers and the fire community to make sound decisions based on the best possible information. By facilitating the exchange of fire information and science we hope to strengthen collaboration within the fire community in the region.
Find us at https://www.facebook.com/GPFireScience and GPFireScience.org.