Early spring has left and late spring is already taking on a feeling of summer. Those geese that were nesting a month ago or more have goslings and some have moved from down powder puffs into actual molting stages and are growing feathers. I have talked to people who saw baby teals and wood ducks a month ago. That is as early as I can remember seeing them. My son Josh spotted a young sandhill crane “colt” a month ago the size of a robin crossing the road with its protective parents.
The other early sign of spring no one could miss were huge plumes of smoke rising high above the horizon as Department of Natural Resources wildlife personnel and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers burned grassland habitat for wildlife management. With conditions just right, high humidity, low wind speeds and winds blowing in favorable directions, the burns take place annually.
Harvey Halvorsen is the Wisconsin DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor out of the Baldwin, Wis. office. Halvorson explained the reasons behind the spring burns. “It’s a cost effective, ecologically sound way to regenerate grassland and wild flowers for wildlife habitat. Controlled burning also improves diversity that will improve wildlife habitat.”
We can look into old surveyor records of the 1800s, when Western Wisconsin had about 350,000 acres of prairie habitat. Over the years those lands were developed before people realized the importance of prairie and the history of prairie habitat right here. Those prairie places with a rich history are still found with names like Prairie Farm, Star Prairie, Erin Prairie and Prairie du Chein. Over the years intense agricultural practices as well as development have destroyed these large expanses of prairie.
State and national funding has brought back around 6,000 acres of prairie habitat right here in our back yards. Much of the land was purchased with special funding and hopefully those funds will remain available to purchase enough land to bring the total of local prairie habitat back to around 20,000 acres. These lands would benefit waterfowl, especially mallards and blue winged teal, pheasants, turkey, whitetail deer and several songbirds that have suffered from loss of prairie habitat. That loss was mostly agricultural and continues to change as modern agriculture changes over from hay crops, when Wisconsin had more home based dairy farms to larger corporate farming. The songbirds that suffered most include meadowlarks, bobolinks, sedge wrens and Henslowe sparrows.
Many people have asked why does the burning have to take place in the spring when wildlife may be nesting. According to Halvorsen, “We have to protect the lands that were preserved. Spring is the best time to burn. Burning slows woody habitat development and we try to burn only every three years as well as coordinate our burning with the Fish and Wildlife’s burning.” I observed a few burns this spring and saw areas where prairie on one side of the road was burned and prairie grasslands on the other side of the road was left unburned to allow wildlife ample habitat to nest.
Before settlement, fire was the great preserver of prairie habitat and natural fires were looked upon as a good thing. With development, man tried to put a stop to the natural wild fires. We all know what the bear says who wears the ranger hat. With man encroaching all across the land we run into issues with building in dry areas prone to natural fires and low lands that flood. That makes today’s wildfires and flooding look like bad things when, in fact, fire and flooding have natural roles that are key components to making this land the perfect place we call home.
Jim Bennett is an outdoorsman who lives and worked in the St. Croix River Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org