Medicine for the Prairies

Written by CNC Avian Field Work and Communications Intern, Delaney Osmond


A fire burns brilliantly and quickly through the tall grass prairie as CNC staff, interns, and volunteers are ready to extinguish the fire should it grow too large. Clouds of smoke tumble into the sky, stinging everyone’s eyes and making everything smell like smoke. In a second, the entire field is transformed from an array of greens and browns to a uniform black. In late May, the staff and wonderful volunteers of Carpenter Nature Center completed prescribed burns on sections of prairie on both the Minnesota and Wisconsin Campus.

Prescribed burns, such as those recently conducted by CNC, are essential for the healthy upkeep of appropriate vegetation in a prairie. The native vegetation of prairies mainly includes dry grasses, such as Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata), Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis). Prairies also host wildflowers such as meadow Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). However, trees and shrubbery tend to overtake the land in the absence of natural defenses like wildfires. Prescribed burns help prevent native prairie plants from being overtaken by excess foliage.

Fires, natural or prescribed, also assist in soil regeneration. The breaking down of larger leaf litter and plant waste while warming the soil increases microbial activity. This chemical process releases nutrients from decaying plant material new grasses and flowers need to grow.

Before burning, CNC informed law enforcement, fire departments, and neighbors of the prescribed burn in their area. Checklists that assist in determining whether conditions are appropriate to conduct a burn were completed for both Wisconsin and Minnesota before any action was taken. Prescribed burns are conducted by a highly professionally trained and certified group of fire practitioners. CNC’s burn crew consists of seven experienced staff and volunteers per session. Controlled burns mitigate risks that may naturally occur during a wildfire. The burn crew is responsible for reducing hazardous fuels and controlling the flames before they spread to human communities.

As science is an ever-evolving process, CNC consulted many sources, including the DNR, the Washington Conservation District, and other prairie restoration experts to determine the best time to burn. The latest research suggests that burning at the same time every year could lead to the artificial selection of a small subset of plants. Because each grass and flower blooms and seeds at different times of the year, burning at the same time each year could be deterring the growth and survival of other species. Prairies thrive on disruption, annual variation in burn time can help build a more robust, diverse, and sustainable prairie.

Prescribed burns greatly benefit native prairie ecosystems and reduce the probability of an unsafe wildfire. Carpenter Nature Center is an organization dedicated to conservation, research, and education. These values are demonstrated in the actions taken to restore native ecosystems.

Pictures taken by Delaney Osmond, May 24, 2022.