The Nature Conservancy of Canada and the University of Saskatchewan partner to return prescribed burns to prairie landscapes
Fire is a key tool for grassland health
The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), with significant contributions from Meewasin Valley Authority, have conducted the second in a series of prescribed burns for a research project taking place at NCC’s Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area (OMB). The prescribed burns are part of a five-year research project to better understand how fire, as a natural disturbance, can improve the plant community and how to influence where cattle and bison graze at OMB. Spring and fall burns are tentatively planned for the area over the next two years.
Grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet, and more than 80 per cent of grasslands in Saskatchewan have been converted to other land uses, leading to dramatic losses in habitat for wildlife and species at risk. Fire is a key component to the health of our grasslands. Fire and grazing create variations in the height and shape of grasslands. An increase in variation may expand the habitat available to a greater variety of plants and animals.
As part of the research, NCC and the U of S worked with local livestock producers, using GPS collars to track cattle and bison movements. Meewasin Valley Authority, with a history of using prescribed burns for similar conservation goals, provided the equipment and expert personnel to support the project. The Frontier Fire Department also participated in the burn, and members of Nekaneet Cree First Nation attended the burn as observers this year. These partners came together to reintroduce prescribed fire, an Indigenous cultural practice and natural ecosystem process, as a land management tool to enhance wildlife and species-at-risk habitat and to improve safety and provide training for firefighters in rural communities.
The small burn patches are helping U of S researchers learn if the grass that grows back following a fire attracts animals to under-used parts of a pasture. U of S researchers detected a small but significant increase in the use of the burned areas at OMB by cattle in 2018. The plant regrowth after the fire attracted grazing animals, which benefit from the higher protein content of the grass.
Unlike wildfires that generally happen when the weather is hot and dry and are made worse by wind, a prescribed burn is a fire set intentionally, under very strict weather and moisture conditions, to achieve specific results. There are many variables that influence whether a prescribed burn can be conducted, including humidity, temperature and wind speed. Prescribed burns are only initiated when every one of the very specific conditions are met.
These prescribed burns create a mix of vegetation heights that result in a variety of habitats for grassland species while maintaining forage for grazing cattle and bison. Fire can also be used to reduce some of the invasive plants growing at OMB. This work is all part of ensuring that OMB continues to be a healthy home for the birds and animals that live there, as well as a working ranch that provides quality forage for ranchers partnering with NCC.
“This research project with the U of S provides an excellent opportunity for NCC to work in partnership with multiple partners to implement the safe and effective use of prescribed fire in Saskatchewan. Prescribed fire, like grazing, is a tool for managing the disturbance-driven ecosystems of Saskatchewan.” ~ Matthew Braun, Manager of Conservation Science and Planning, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Saskatchewan Region
“This project was designed to encourage collaboration between agencies interested in addressing complex environmental issues. Fire suppression across the Canadian prairies over the last 100 years has decreased the variety of habitats available to native species, which have adapted to periodic disturbances by fire and grazing. I think this is a great opportunity for non-governmental organizations, First Nations, academia and the agriculture industry to partner for enhanced stewardship of our precious grasslands for positive ecological and economic outcomes.” ~ Dale Gross, M.Sc., PhD candidate, University of Saskatchewan
A number of beneficial effects have been linked to fire, including:
• Reducing shrub encroachment on grasslands when combined with grazing;
• Increasing native species diversity;
• Creating a variety of vegetation communities and habitat types across the landscape;
• Returning nutrients to the soil and stimulating vegetation growth;
• Increasing food production for wildlife; and
• Decreasing exotic and undesirable species.
- 30 -