For the Record: How prescribed burns bring new life to Wisconsin’s prairies

MADISON, Wis. — In recent years, climate change has caused wildfires to grow bigger, stronger, and increasingly more common, but the natural environment’s relationship with fire is a complicated one that’s capable of creating balance rather than just chaos and devastation.

Prescribed burns are proof of that.

For countless generations, Native American tribes throughout North America used fire as a tool for land management, often clearing woodlands and fields of old vegetation to draw in new, native wildlife.

Now, prescribed burns are regularly used by conservationists — including some with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources — to maintain Wisconsin’s native prairies and grasslands. Part of an annual cycle, the burns help make way for new plants to grow, return needed nutrients to the soil and provide countless types of wildlife with food-rich habitats.

“We have a lot of really precious ecosystems that do rely on fire in the state,” DNR Prescribed Fire Specialist Michele Witecha said. “It’s a large workload.”

Prior to the displacement of Native tribes from southern Wisconsin in the 1800s, fires were much more common throughout the landscape. According to experts with the University of Wisconsin Madison’s Arboretum, fires started by lightning strikes or Native Americans could burn uninterrupted for days at a time. When European settlers arrived in the area, they disrupted much of the region’s natural landscape with roads and farmland.

Over the past 80 years, though, crews with the DNR, UW Arboretum and other groups involved in conservation efforts statewide have used the burns to help restore local ecosystems to their natural state. Work that began in the 1940s has since translated to local governments — including the City of Madison and Dane County — conducting prescribed burns of their own to maintain public lands and parks.

Prescribed burns typically take place during the spring and fall seasons, with the spring burn season kicking off once the ground has thawed. Breeding season brings a new set of challenges for spring burns, too.

“We burn for wildlife,” Witecha said. “In order to do this management activity, we have to do it in a way that mitigates a lot of that negative impact.”

That means keeping track of breeding schedules for rare, endangered or threatened species that live in various parts of the state. Using a calendar dedicated to tracking breeding and hibernation schedules, DNR district ecologists and staff monitor when some key species — especially rare reptiles and amphibians — are emerging in area forests and prairies. As soon as that happens, burns scheduled for areas where those animals live are shut down.

Prescribed burns are also a useful tool when planning for climate change’s future impacts on the state’s diverse ecosystems.

According to Witecha, future climate models predict that some plant species — including aspen and western hemlock — may not be suitable for southern Wisconsin’s climate. Oak trees, though, may become more common in their absence, meaning the vegetation DNR crews target with their prescribed burns in the future will likely change.

“When we look at the vegetation composition, obviously that impacts what wildlife we can expect to see there,” Witecha said. “So it’s not just about making sure that these tree species can subsist, it’s also about making sure that the wildlife [that] depend[s] on them are still going to be there as well.”

If you have an idea for a story about Wisconsin’s outdoor spaces, future impacts of climate change, or the state of our natural resources that you’d like to see covered in For the Record’s monthly environmental segment, send an email to News 3 Now’s assignment editor, Logan Rude, at lrude@wisctv.com.