Billowing smoke on the horizon meant proactive efforts were underway to manage grassland habitat at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.
Prescribed burns were held by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on October 25-27 on about 3100 acres south of School Lake and near the Pony Lake headquarters of the refuge.
There is significant planning for prescribed burns, as they are best done while weather conditions are suitable, notably when there are dry conditions and low winds, said Juancarlos Giese, manager of the refuge.
For this autumn’s prescribed burns, assistance was provided by “personnel from the National Park Service (Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument), the U.S. Forest Service (Pine Ridge and Bessey Ranger Districts), a veterans fire crew from the Student Conservation Association, and various U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices,” Giese said. There were 15 to 22 people present each day to control the extent of the fire and to make certain it was contained within the intended area.
“It’s very rewarding to see such a diverse set of state, federal and non-governmental organizations come together to combine resources in order to conduct a safe and effective prescribed burn,” Giese said.
Some of the land burned had been previously burned, Giese noted. "We constantly modify our burn units based on ecological needs, safety concerns and logistical measures. The 2000 wildfires were the last big burn, and touched parts of all three prescription burns" done this October.
Portions of the Wednesday burn around Center Lake and 21 Lake had been burned in 2008, 2010 and 2015, Giese indicated. The bulk of the Thursday burn area south of Pony Lake has not been burned in recent history.
Following the burns, some county ranchers noticed the barren appearance of the hills and expressed some concern that seasonal winds could mean the start of "blowout" areas since there was a lesser extent of vegetative cover. Ensuing dry conditions with unseasonably warmer temperatures contributed to worry about the vitality of the ground cover. A three inch snow on November 17-18th was welcomed moisture.
"Before the snowstorm, there was already a carpet of grass and wildflowers sprouting over the sandhills and meadows, which will provide additional stability," Giese said.
"The root masses of the prairie plants are still viable, ready for the proper conditions to resprout. These roots, combined with standing dead and living vegetation, hold the sandhills in place. People driving past will no doubt see blowing sand and ash, but this is most likely the loose materials at the ground level.
"Many people have asked if these late season burns will create blowouts, but we have never seen any evidence of new blowouts created after or because of a prescribed burn."
These blackened areas do attract a diversity of wildbirds.
Many species made quick use of an area burned last year, including prairie grouse, pheasants, unidentified sparrows, with longspurs reported, along with horned larks, and probably other species, based upon observations by Mel Nenneman, refuge biologist.
During the breeding season after a prescribed burn, the prairie land attracts a variety of avifauna.
Birds that may nest in the short prairie vegetation in the spring following a burn, include Long-billed Curlew, Killdeer, Horned Lark and Upland Sandpiper, Nenneman said. The habitat is "also good for lekking grouse."
"It will be interesting to see what happens next spring for nesting and migration," Giese said. “As these habitats progress through the years, the refuge biological staff will continue to monitor the vegetation to see how these burned areas are affected by weather patterns, different grazing intensities, and invasive species. Biologists will also be monitoring use by migrating and nesting birds to see how wildlife responds over the years to the ecological changes.
“Fire and grazing have always been integral components of the prairie ecosystems. Incorporating prescribed burning in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge management regime has the capability to benefit all species of wildlife - from the smallest pollinating bees and butterflies, to the birds, deer and antelope that make the refuge home.”