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Prescribed Burning Guidelines
in the Northern Great Plains


Fire, whether set or caused by lightning, has been a part of the prairie for thousands of years. Fire provides one or more benefits to a prairie. It can remove dead vegetation that hinders new growth. It can release nutrients to enrich the soil. It can reduce invader plants and encourage native species. It can create habitats attractive to wildlife.

Misused, it can do the opposite. The best planned and best managed fire, prepared and executed according to the standards in this manual, may be destructive if its probable results on all biological systems on the site have not been examined and weighed first.

When fire is in your management plan, use this manual.

These state-of-the-art guidelines are developed specifically for land resource managers in the north-central United States and south-central Canada. They present the key elements of planning, using, containing, and evaluating prescription burns in the Northern Great Plains (NGP).

Area covered by guidelines

The grassland areas for which these guidelines are intended lie within the general boundaries of the NGP, specifically the glaciated prairie pothole region of the north-central U.S. and south-central Canada. The delineation of the natural grassland vegetation of this area follows Wright and Bailey (1980) as modified from Kuchler (1964) and Rowe (1972).

JPEG -- Map of Area

Although Iowa and Nebraska are not part of the NGP, the guidelines should have application to some grassland areas of northwest Iowa and the northern edge of Nebraska.

Major grassland habitats of this area include mixed-grass prairie, tallgrass prairie, fescue prairie, and several types of forage crop plantings varying from mixtures of exotic grasses and legumes to mixtures of native grass cultivars.

These guidelines do not include the aspen parklands, the shortgrass prairie, or any extensive woodland areas. However, they will pertain to prairies and plains that also support scattered trees, shrub thickets, and shrub communities such as silverberry (Elaeagnus commutata), western snowberry (buckbrush) (Symphoricarpos occidentalis), and sagebrush (Artemisia spp).

Fire in historical perspective

Fire is one of the natural forces maintaining northern grasslands. Lightning-set fires are still common in the U.S. and Canada (Higgins 1984; Raby 1966; Nelson and England 1971). However, fires set by native peoples were mentioned most in historical journals, diaries, and other accounts (Nelson and England 1971; Moore 1972; Higgins 1986).

The presence of historical fire in the NGP can not be contested; it was there and the native people used it.

Most of the more recent lightning-set fires in the NGP occurred during summer and early fall (Rowe 1969; Higgins 1984). Although fires were reported from April through September, the majority were in July and August.

Higgins (1984) estimated a frequency of six lightning fires/yr/10,000 sq km in grasslands in eastern North Dakota, 25/yr/10,000 sq km in western North Dakota, and 92/yr/10,000 sq km in pine-savanna lands in northwestern South Dakota and southeastern Montana.

The periodicity of lightning-set fires undoubtedly plays an important role in the composition and ecology of grasslands of the NGP.

Deliberate firing of the prairie by native peoples was much more frequent in historical literature than were lightning-set fires. Native Americans set fires both unintentionally and deliberately for a variety of reasons (Moore 1972; Nelson and England 1971; Higgins 1986). Their most frequent use of fire was probably to aid a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, to drive game and to procure food, shelter, and clothing (Authur 1975).

These fires, like lightning-set fires, undoubtedly played an important role in the evolutionary process and development of the grassland biomass of the NGP. The use of fire is equally important today as prairies are managed for the future.

Present-day burning

The trend toward prescribed burning of grasslands is illustrated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) increasing use of fire on fee title lands in the prairie pothole region. The first management fire on USFWS lands in this region was conducted in North Dakota by A.D. Kruse on Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge in 1965. An average of 16 burns/yr was set on USFWS lands between 1965 and 1980; the number increased to an average 162/yr between 1981 and 1984 (Fig 2).

GIF -- Occurrence of fires bar graph

Field personnel conducting prescription fires during the late 1960s and early 1970s soon realized that more knowledge and training were necessary for successful burning programs. A Prairie Prescribed Burning Symposium and Workshop was held in Jamestown, ND, on 25-28 April 1978. This was the initial effort to educate a large group (approximately 300) of resource managers in the NGP on the use of fires in grassland regions of the U.S. and Canada.

The use of fire increased dramatically within 2 years of the symposium-workshop (Fig 2). A 2-year delay of implementation seems reasonable because of the necessity to plan, obtain equipment, and obtain administrative approval to burn.

With the help of refuge personnel, we collected records on 902 grassland fires on USFWS lands. Equivalent records were not kept on all fires; therefore different sample sizes occur in our data for different variables.

In all, 28,141 ha (69,484 acres) were burned in 902 fires by the USFWS (Fig 3). Most (77%) burns occurred during 1981-1984. These fires averaged 31 ha (77 acres) in size, varying from less than 0.4 ha (1 acre) to 1,013 ha (2,500 acres) (Fig 4). Almost 96% of the fires were conducted in two states, 63.2% in North Dakota and 32.4% in Minnesota, with fewer in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Montana (Fig 5). Fifty-two percent of the burns were in native grasslands with fewer in tame and native grass plantings, marshes, and woodlands (Fig 6). The percentage of burns by habitats is in close proportion to that which occurs on USFWS lands in this region.

GIF -- Area burned bar graph

GIF -- Size class bar graph

GIF -- Distribution by state bar graph

GIF -- Distribution by hatitat type bar graph

The number of people assigned to a fire ranged from 1 to 23 on USFWS lands; only two to five people (most commonly, four) conducted 81% of the fires (Fig 7). The number of people necessary to safely conduct a fire depends on the size of the burn, the kind of firebreaks and equipment available, and weather conditions.

GIF -- People per Fire bar graph

The cost of each grassland burn is related to the number of people present and the size of the burn area (Figs 8 and 9). Costs and work hours per unit of effort are extremely high for small fires of less than 4 ha (10 acres), but were essentially the same for larger burns of 16 to 113 ha (40 to 280 acres) (Figs 8 and 9).

GIF -- Cost regression graph

GIF -- Work-hours regression graph

Is fire a choice?

NGP grasslands can be managed in different ways; fire is but one possible choice. Other grassland management options include grazing, mowing, haying, fertilization, herbicides, soil scarification, interseeding, and total renovation and reseeding.

A land manager's first decision is to determine whether fire is a viable option. Fire should not be a grassland management choice for a specific area if:

  1. Federal or state regulations prohibit burning.
  2. Local ordinances or zoning prohibit burning.
  3. Containment and safety factors are extremely risky.
  4. Endangered species or natural communities are subject to harm or their status is in doubt.
  5. Fire behavior or fire effects will not meet the objectives for the area.
  6. Local residences would be in jeopardy.
If fire can not be used for any of the above six reasons, accept the decision as final. Establish a file record of the specific area that may not be burned and list the reasons that limit or prohibit the use of prescribed fire. List the most probable alternative grassland management methods for the specific area and the reasons for these choices.

The following guidelines were developed with the assumption that fire can be used as a grassland management tool for a specific area.

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