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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Prescribed Burning Guidelines
in the Northern Great Plains

Reasons for grassland burning

Grasslands are burned primarily to manipulate vegetation and enhance the biological productivity and diversity of specific organisms or to accomplish specific objectives.

Specific objectives may be broad (prairie restoration and maintenance) or narrow (management for endangered or rare species or reduction of woody plants).

Most of the recent prescribed fires in the NGP have been used either for native prairie restoration or for wildlife habitat management. Very little burning has been done for livestock management purposes in this region.

From interviews with a sample of USFWS refuge and wetlands managers, we found that, where native prairie was not a major part of the management area, nearly all prescription fires were used to reduce vegetative litter, to control noxious weeds, or to improve the height and density of planted cover (dense nesting cover for wildlife).

Where native prairie was a major part of a management area, the primary reasons for burning were approximately 60% for wildlife habitat improvement and 40% for prairie restoration, improvement, or enhancement.

Occasionally, a manager burns for very specific reasons such as reduction of Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) or other undesirable, exotic cool-season grasses, control of undesirable shrubs or trees, or enhancement of the aesthetic appearance of an area. USFWS managers also burn wetlands to reduce cattails (Typha spp).

So far, very few grasslands in this region have been burned for livestock management reasons. However, one good example was a cooperative burning program implemented among members of the North Dakota State University Botany Department, the Sheyenne Grazing Association, and the U.S. Forest Service in the Sheyenne National Grasslands near Lisbon, ND (W.T. Barker, pers comm).

The agencies burned sedge (Carex spp) lowlands in the spring before the start of grazing. These burned lowlands were then grazed before the adjacent uplands, allowing the uplands an undisturbed time for plant growth. The burning program improved total grazing distribution and increased utilization on sedge lowlands which previously had little use. Grazing deferment on the upland also allowed nesting cover to improve and provide greater production of prairie chickens (Tympanuchus cupido).

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