Tallgrass prairie fires were once a common occurrence, and had a considerable impact on nature and wildlife. Such fires were typically the result of lightning strikes that occurred during the frequent thunderstorms experienced by the region. Because of the area’s dry conditions, high winds, and absence of obstructions, fires would spread quickly and could travel quite far. This prevented the growth of woody vegetation such as trees, which resulted in the grass-filled ecosystems that are now seen throughout the prairie states.
Prior to European settlers entering the region, indigenous Native American tribes often started fires as way to manage wildlife. Such fires were a tool to drive bison toward more convenient hunting ground, and the renewed growth that took place after the fire appealed to bison herds, and helped to predict their movement.
The region’s fires even influenced the prairie’s rich soil, which was what first attracted settlers to the area. The fires removed the layers of organic waste and dead plants that prevented necessary nutrients from leaching into the soil. In addition, such waste kept the soil cool, but once removed, the sun’s rays could warm the ground. The waste that results from such fires is easily broken down, and vital nutrients can once again enter the soil, creating the ideal environment for new plant growth. The root systems of prairie vegetation are deep, therefore, even if the surface shoots are burned, regrowth takes place quickly.
The tallgrass prairie is a severely endangered ecosystem. Although much of this danger is the result of habitat loss due to development and farming, the decrease in natural fires has had a considerable impact the on undeveloped prairie tracts. Woody vegetation and invasive plants are no longer restrained by fire and are starting to invade these ecosystems. The dead plant waste layers are allowed to accumulate, impacting the growth of various grasses. This will ultimately change the very roots of the Tallgrass Prairie Ecosystem.
Due to the aforementioned considerations, wildlife management agencies are developing a strategy of controlled fires to help the prairie ecosystems survive in the most natural way possible. This is typically accomplished by carefully selecting a day during the most suitable time of year, and creating a controlled burn. Firefighters are present to ensure the fire does not burn out of control. This is an effective and safe avenue through which these natural areas can be restored to their original state.
While common sense dictates that fires are destructive and dangerous, it is essential to understand that they are vital to the maintenance of prairie ecosystems. With carefully managed burns, renewed growth can be encouraged by wildlife management agencies, and our prairies can be restored to their natural condition.