Tallgrass Prairie in Trouble

Tallgrass Prairie in Trouble

June 2, 2016

Story provided by Kansas State University

The Tallgrass Prairie, one of the most endangered and altered ecosystems in the United States, with only 4% of its one time 400,000 acres of land remaining, is being examined in a new study from Kansas State University.  For centuries, controlled burns have been used in this area of the country, first by native populations and today by land managers, ranchers and prairie scientists working to keep the grasslands flourishing.

Now, new research conducted at the university is calling for an increase in the frequency of burns.  As left alone, the native species of grasses and other animals and organisms dependent on this ecosystem, would be be lost to the shrubs, cedar trees and other types of invasive woodland vegetation.

"The Tallgrass Prairie is very unique in that most people think of a preserve or a place you are going to protect," says John Briggs, Director of Konza Prairie Biological Station, Department of Biology, Kansas State University  "You can just put a fence around it and let it be, and it’s going to take care of itself. Unfortunately, that’s no longer possible with our system. We have to introduce, or do prescribe burning in this system." 

The study, using 40 years of data collected at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in Kansas, found that controlled burning of grasslands, conducted above a three-year threshold, gave time for woody vegetation to begin to take hold and overpower the native grasses of that area. And though fire is a powerful tool for maintaining grassland vitality, burning alone might not be able to remedy an area in which woody vegetation has taken over.

"Once you get to these woodland states," explains Briggs, "we’re not confident that fire alone is going to bring that back, and that other means that are very expensive or very harmful – for example either mechanically removing it or using herbicides –  you know once it gets there, we don’t know if we can transfer that back to a grassland site just using fire."   

Briggs acknowledges that burning carries with it a certain amount of controversy regarding the smoke that is created during the burning process, and recommends that land managers and communities continue to work together to abate the levels of smoke that stem from the burnings. More information on smoke control can be found at ksfire.org. The study is published in Elsevier's Journal of Rangeland Ecology

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