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Native critters, plants depend on work of prescribed burns

Bill Clausen relays instructions over the radio to other members of the fire crew as they conduct a prescribed burn on the Freeze Waterfowl Production Area in northern Kandiyohi County on May 6. Tribune photos by Tom Cherveny1 / 2
This area's natural habitat evolved around frequent fire occurrences. Prescribed burns like this one on the Freeze Waterfowl Production area in northern Kandiyohi County are conducted to restore the landscape for the native plants and critters that depend on it. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny2 / 2

SUNBURG -- Bill Clausen devoted most of his 25 year career with the U.S. Forest Service to fighting fires.

''I've been just about everywhere,'' said Clausen of years that included lots of adrenalin-pumping moments. Once, he and his fellow fire fighters survived a California conflagration by taking shelter in a gravel pit as a wall of flames roared overhead.

For the past six years, Clausen has been setting fires with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of its Litchfield wetlands district office.

He's hard pressed to name a place where the work could be more rewarding.

''I've never seen an ecosystem that is so responsive to fire,'' said Clausen of the prairie lands with stands of native oaks that he purposely helps manage with fire.

''You can tell that it needs fire.''

He spoke May 6 as flames licked the sky behind him on the Freeze Waterfowl Production Area in northern Kandiyohi County. The 500-acre plus site is adjacent to similar, native prairie that is part of the Nature Conservancy's Leif Mountains preserve.

Clausen is the district's fire boss on prescribed burns that are conducted on USFWS-managed lands in an area that encompasses Kandiyohi, Meeker, Renville, McLeod, Stearns, Wright and Todd counties. There are nearly 35,000 acres of land located on 151 waterfowl production areas within this region.

Clausen and the crews he leads try to burn about 3,000 acres of these lands each year, although if he were king and money no object, he'd set fire to twice as many.

''Fire is the biggest tool that Mother Nature has,'' said Clausen.

He calls it a change agent, and one for the good. His years of work and study of our natural environments have taught him that fire is a constant around which all of our ecosystems have evolved. The only difference is the timing.

The rain forest ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest need the benefits of fire at intervals as far apart as 800 years. Other western forests -- like those in Idaho -- can benefit from fires every 25 years or so.

The native prairie lands of western Minnesota frequently saw fires, as often as every two and three years, said Clausen

Fire is essential for maintaining the natural cover of grasses and forbs that comprise the habitat needed by the grassland birds and waterfowl these lands are managed for, according to Scott Glup, project manager with the USFWS office in Litchfield. Glup said the mixed prairie and oak savanna landscape that fire maintains on these lands also benefits a wide variety of other wildlife, from deer to pheasants.

Most of the prescribed burns take place in the spring, when the thatch is dry and the benefits of fire are the greatest. Spring burns effectively knock down the invasive grasses like brome and Kentucky bluegrass that sprout early and elbow out the native plants, Glup explained.

Fire also is also very effective at taking out natural, woody invaders like cedars, as well as all of those trees we spread about the landscape, like Siberian elm, and only now realize the folly of it.

Yet for all the good they do, prescribed burns are not always appreciated. Glup said the most often heard criticism is that spring burns deprive birds of nesting habitat.

Grassland birds are adapted to the natural disturbance that fire brings to their landscape, said Glup. Birds nesting on lands where prescribed burns occur almost invariably set up a new nests elsewhere and start over, just as they did when the natural prairie fires ranged over the landscape.

The wildlife can usually return home in a month or so to a landscape far more hospitable to their needs.

Clausen likes to come back too. He invariably finds a green and thriving landscape once again filled with wildlife and sometimes, the human visitor who will hear his story only to ask in surprise: ''What do you mean there was a fire here?''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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