Flames stretched for 2 miles Friday at the Edward M. Brigham III Alkali Lake Sanctuary northeast of Jamestown. Instead of fighting the fire, staff from the sanctuary and professionals from Prairie Restoration Inc. set the fires and controlled the burn.
Prairie Restoration is based in Princeton, Minnesota, and specializes in restoring native prairie through a variety of tools including controlled burns.
“We’re trying to restore it to what it was like a couple of centuries ago,” said Marshall Johnson, executive director of Audubon Dakota, the branch of the National Audubon Society that manages the sanctuary. “It has developed a monoculture of grass. We want to bring back the level of diversity endemic to the area.”
Johnson said previous staff had used controlled burns as a management tool from the 1970s to the early 1990s. That policy was discontinued, and over the past 20 years a heavy mat of dead vegetation had formed across the grassland. Burning that mat of materials will help to kill off the non-native brome and bluegrass species found on the sanctuary and allow native grasses such as blue stem and blue grama and native wildflowers such as the pasque flower or prairie crocus to thrive.
“We’re mimicking what Mother Nature would do with a lightning strike every once in a while,” Johnson said. “The fire will also reduce the number of ticks which have become a problem in the area.”
Future management plans also include renting some areas to local farmers to be tilled and planted to crops for the next two to three years before replanting those fields to native grasses, and fencing some areas for livestock grazing.
Johnson said the grazing land would be cross fenced into small pastures. The cattle would intensely graze each pasture for a few days before being rotated to the next pasture or paddock. This mimics the effect a large herd of migrating bison would have on the prairie grasses as they pass through an area.
“Cattle can do a lot of what the burns do in controlling the accumulation of plant material,” he said.
The goal of the sanctuary’s management plan is to provide better habitat.
“We want it to be great for all wildlife while it is good for deer now,” Johnson said. “We also want it to be a good recreation place for people.”
The controlled burn Friday included about 600 acres of grasslands and sloughs on the east side of Alkali Lake. Future burns on the west side of the lake are anticipated when weather allows.
Johnson said the cost of the burns and fencing projects exceeds $160,000. The funds have been raised through grants and individual donations.
Sun reporter Keith Norman can be reached at 701-952-8452 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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