*This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine.
By: Makhayla LaButte, MUCC Habitat Volunteer Coordinator
DESIGNED TO BURN
Although best known for towering forests and shimmering Great Lakes, much of Michigan’s natural history is intrinsically tied to wildfire and the habitats that depend on it. Once abundant, these ecosystems are now scattered and hidden in plain sight among the converted landscapes of agriculture and select forests. Much of Michigan’s native flora and fauna are adapted to fire.
Pine and oak forests and various types of grasslands are ecosystems that require fire in order to provide quality habitat for native wildlife. Although wildfires are readily prevented and suppressed today, they were once a normal part of the landscape due to natural occurrence and intentional use by Native Americans. Traditionally, people who occupied the landscapes of Michigan would use fire as a tool to manage the land for needs like agriculture. Perhaps one of the best examples of Michigan wildlife being adapted to fire-prone landscapes is the Kirtland’s warbler and its unique adaptation to jack pine habitat. Endemic to Michigan and limited locations in Wisconsin and Quebec, this ground-nesting migratory songbird only nests in young jack pine that still have their lowest branches near the ground.
Being serotinous, or covered with resin and unable to open without an environmental trigger, the cones of jack pine require the extreme heat from a fire to open. In the nutrient-rich soil created by fires, these cones produce the next generation of jack pine stands. As Michigan land management agencies became increasingly aggressive in their efforts to prevent destructive wildfires, they inadvertently starved the jack pine ecosystems of the fire necessary to regenerate.
The abrupt and maintained loss of wildfire also led to a sharp decline in the Kirtland’s warbler population. As young jack pine forests grew scarce, the Kirtland’s warblers struggled to find suitable nesting habitat. This severe habitat loss, paired with cowbird nest parasitism, led to the Kirtland’s warbler being listed as an endangered species in 1967.
Following extensive conservation efforts by state and federal land management agencies utilizing both prescribed fire and other jack pine regeneration techniques, the Kirtland’s warbler population successfully rebounded, and they were removed from the endangered species list in 2019. The Kirtland’s warbler and its jack pine ecosystem are but one example of fire-adapted flora and fauna in Michigan. The wildlife found in grasslands like savannas and prairies is also dependent on wildfire.
According to Michigan Natural Features Inventory, grassland habitats like prairies and savannas once made up a significant portion of Michigan’s landscape. However, the designated acreage of these grasslands shrunk from two million acres to eight thousand acres since European settlement of the area.
Dominated by grasses and containing sparse or no tree cover (primarily fire-adapted oaks), the prairies and savannas of Michigan were shaped by recurring fires. As Europeans settled the land, much of the prairies and savannas were converted to agricultural land or became the building sites of urban development. The locations of these habitats that do remain are carefully managed by natural resource professionals to protect the unique flora and fauna that occupy these areas.
These grassland habitats are not only home to endangered species like the Karner blue butterfly, but popular game species like wild turkeys, white-tailed deer and ring-necked pheasants. Songbirds and pollinator species like bees and butterflies also rely on grasslands. Not only do they provide quality habitat for game and nongame species alike, but they also provide services like air and water purification.
Many of Michigan’s forest and grassland habitats rely on fire to keep them healthy, and native wildlife often thrive in the aftermath of a burn. Aside from regenerating native trees, shrubs and grasses, fire also increases the mineral content of soil and creates dead, standing trees that provide food and shelter for insects and birds. The impacts of wildfire on the landscape are complicated and vary based on factors unique to each habitat, but many natural resource professionals agree that fire is a critical component of a high-quality ecosystem.
BRINGING FIRE BACK TO THE LANDSCAPE
Although wildfires in Michigan are still sparked naturally by lightning or accidentally by humans, many fires are purposefully suppressed by both state and federal natural resource management agencies. This is done to protect human lives, homes and businesses after many severe wildfires roared in various locations across the state, whether sparked by lightning, railroads or other human activity.
However, it became clear that fire suppression had its own drawbacks and often led to even more extreme wildfires due to the build-up of highly flammable debris. Thus, management agencies began to conduct prescribed burns to rid the land of built-up debris and reintroduce fire back to the ecosystems that rely on it.
Just as a doctor might prescribe a medication, natural resource professionals often prescribe fire as a landscape-level treatment. Prescribed fires are started intentionally by trained and certified professionals in areas selected for fire treatment. These areas have clear boundaries, and the type of fire prescribed is dependent on ecosystem and environmental factors like the species impacted, soil type, weather and the season. According to data provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), each year the fire management crew of the DNR Forest Resources Division conducts nearly 100 prescribed burns that cover approximately 9,000 acres of state-owned public land.
Additionally, approximately 18,000 acres were treated with prescribed burns on federal land throughout Michigan in 2019 alone. Prescribed burns by tribal governments, local governments and on private property also take place each year across the state.
Prescribed burns require extensive planning. Burn days must meet specific weather requirements to ensure that the burn is successful and that control is maintained over the flames. Natural resource professionals never burn without a clear goal in mind for the ecosystem. Common examples of such goals are the regeneration of native flora like jack pine, clearing grasslands of excess shrubs and trees, the removal of invasive species or the reduction of fuels (woody debris, leaves, shrubs) that could cause severe wildfires.
Following the end of a controlled burn, the fire crew in charge of the area will monitor the burn site extensively for days or even weeks to ensure no hot-spots remain that could ignite a new fire. By conducting controlled and purposeful burns within set boundaries, natural resource managers are not only able to rejuvenate fire-dependent lands and maintain habitat for Michigan wildlife, but also provide critical training to wildland firefighters.
A CONTROVERSIAL TOOL
The use of fire as an ecosystem management tool has long been a contentious debate, even as the study of fire science has advanced and the number of successful burns has increased.
Complaints and concerns have increased as human civilization has grown, and homes, cities and farms are built in areas that have been exposed and adapted to frequent wildfire long before their settlement. Even in Michigan, where homes and private property abut jack pine ecosystems and grasslands, individuals express displeasure at forest treatments involving prescribed fires.
The biggest complaints from the public that stem from prescribed burns are the resulting smoke and the desolate appearance of a landscape immediately following a burn. Additionally, many fear the possibility that a prescribed burn could grow out of control and threaten areas outside of the designated burn boundary. Although alternatives like mowing, herbicide and mechanical clearing can also be used, fire has consistently offered extraordinarily cost-effective and ecologically beneficial
It is important to understand that a lack of prescribed fire in fire-adapted landscapes often results in fuel build-up that ignites even more dangerous and destructive wildfires. Such fires know no boundaries and are incredibly challenging (and expensive) to fight and control.
Fire crews work to limit the negative impacts of smoke from prescribed fires by waiting for ideal weather conditions and informing homeowners near a burn site of the possibility of smoke. The inclusion of surrounding landowners in the prescribed burn process has had a positive impact on individuals’ perception of its use as a treatment tool. What’s more, many members of the public are impressed by the speed at which high-quality habitat regenerates following a prescribed fire.
By educating ourselves about the extensive science supporting prescribed burns within many Michigan ecosystems and the plans in place by state and federal agencies regarding their wildfire programs, we are not only better able to understand the reasons behind the decisions of natural resource professionals but play an active role in understanding the resources themselves.
Although much of the discussion about prescribed burns is held on the topic of public lands, there are resources available for private landowners interested in performing prescribed burns on their own property. One such resource is the Michigan Prescribed Fire Council, whose mission is to protect, conserve and expand the safe use of prescribed fire on the Michigan landscape. Their webpage offers an abundance of information regarding prescribed burning in Michigan for practitioners, students and interested members of the public.
Numerous other conservation organizations, land management agencies and universities across Michigan offer resources for individuals interested in learning more about prescribed fire and the value of fire as a conservation tool. Before starting a fire, always obtain a burn permit from the Michigan DNR and review the local ordinances in your area to ensure burning is permitted. Burn permits are issued based on the fire danger ratings in your area. Monitor the weather diligently to ensure good burn conditions, wear appropriate safety gear and always have materials like a shovel and water nearby to control the flames.