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Prairie and fire go together

March 31, 2012
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

Conservation land management techniques are many. Just one tool in the tool kit is fire. Properly used at the right time at the right place will help insure the vigor and succulent regrowth of native grasses and forbs. As a new spring season approaches, controlled fire management will be part of the game plan for some portions of Marshall County Conservation Board areas where original and/or reconstructed prairie grasslands exist.

Stay tuned for short notice announcements via radio spots for a planned prairie burn at the Green Castle Recreation Area. The prairie burn will be at night, hopefully during the week of April 9th, and the public is welcome to watch from a distance and photograph a managed fire.

Periodic prairie burns, usually once every 3 years or so, is sufficient to invigorate and maintain grassland growth. Fires also set back or kill the tendency for woody growth of shrubs or trees to 'invade' grasslands. This scribe has seen several plots of private lands with prairie grass remnants essentially destroyed by lack of attention, lack of fire and the passive allowance of trees to invade the land. Without periodic fires, trees at least here in Iowa, will try to take over.

Article Photos

Fire management is a tool. When applied properly it mimics the natural forces of nature to remove old growth and encourage new growth. American Indians used fire extensively for many thousands of years to help attract bison to the succulent regrowth of prairie grasses and forbs. Today’s photo is from a past prairie management burn several years ago at the Grimes Farm. Waiting for the correct weather conditions and light winds from the right direction are important factors before conservation crews begin any burn.


Iowa prior to settlement was estimated to have approximately 85 percent of its 55,875 square miles of landscape covered by tall grass prairie. Forests and woodlands bordering river and stream systems accounted for an additional 13 percent. That leaves 2 percent of the land area as prairie pothole water impoundments, rivers or natural lakes.

Iowa's rich prairie land soils are the direct result of eons of geologic time, when huge glaciers over the entire northern hemisphere came and went many many times. Between glacial episodes were inter-glacial warm times, when retreated ice allowed plant growth to move northward.

Remember that one must think in long term geologic time frames to comprehend the big picture of earth's natural cycles. As each advancing glacial system moved south, it acted like a big bulldozer to level, cut and grind rocks and other organic debris into a quagmire of precursor soil material, the stuff scientists call parent material. On these surfaces exposed after ice melt, plants grew, died and added organic matter. Slowly, over many thousands of years, the end product is what we call soil.

Soil is what underlies all of Iowa's 55,875 square miles. We live on it, grow our food from it, and drive our machinery and vehicles on road beds shaped from the soil under our feet. Those original tall grass prairie areas are what we converted to agricultural needs, to the tune of about 91 percent of Iowa. Prairie areas were relatively easy to convert for our uses. Removing river bottom forests for additional agricultural uses is part of our history too. After all the conversions, Iowa still retains a few precious jewels of native prairie, less than one-tenth of 1 percent. These sites are worth preserving through thoughtful long term conservation management.

If one was to make a pie graph of land uses in Iowa, the pieces of this pie illustrate how we use the land. Row crop lands are understandable the big piece with over 3, at 69 percent. Next comes lands as hay, pasture, private forests and water for an additional 22 percent. These two categories make up 91 percent. So, out of the remaining 9 percent, one can tell that the remaining slices of this pie are going to get very thin. Here is how it shakes out: Cities and other incorporated places, if placed together, measure up to another three percent; roadways and road right-of-ways take another three percent. That leaves us with the last three percent which includes all city, state and county lands.

Within this mix are golf courses, city parks, state and county parks, federal wildlife refuges, natural and man-made lakes, and wildlife management areas containing a mix of wetlands, forests and prairie. DNR

lands alone are way less than one percent.

Do remember that Iowa's diversity of natural landscapes offers a wide array of topographic settings. Many of these sites were dedicated over a century ago primarily for their natural beauty, scenic vistas, park like settings, or native flora and fauna conservation considerations.

Another way of looking at these natural sites is this way. After all other competing forces got their share, lands for conservation and recreational purposes got what was left over, those lands that were too steep, too rocky, too wet, too prone to flooding, too "unproductive" to be anything else than what they were. And these 'left-over lands' are precisely the type of landforms that conservation interests find so appealing for the flora, fauna and scenic qualities they hold.

Within those "too" lands is where Iowans of all walks of life find important attributes of living that cannot be calculated in purely economical terms. Camping at a state or county park with family and

friends is of great value socially and psychologically. Fishing along a stream, river or lake falls in the same realm. Hunting pheasants, turkey, deer or ducks are outdoors experiences worth much more to many of us as part of the quality time needed to make our lives worth living.

The list goes on and on. And this little fact should not be ignored.

Iowa public lands for conservation purposes generate nearly $4 billion annually, which is a big portion of the third largest industry in Iowa, tourism, in all its various forms and nuances.


Fishermen like WALLEYES. They are one of the most sought after game fishes available in area rivers or lakes. This year with the early arrival of spring weather, walleye brood stock are somewhat confused.

The confusion comes from the water temperature having warmed more than traditional limits inducing spawning before the photoperiod is long enough. Walleye ideally spawn when water is in the mid-40s and the photoperiod, daylight length, is around the first week of April. This year due to warmer than normal temperatures, water was 51 degrees at the Rathbun hatchery on March 27. Water temps at Spirit Lake were 52 degrees F. DNR fisheries crews at Spirit Lake have been setting test nets to evaluate brood stock female walleye. The goal is to not merely collect eggs but to produce viable fry for stocking. Spawning before the fish are ready biologically results in less viable fry. Time will

tell if mother nature can pull off a successful year class of walleye in 2012. DNR crews hope to collect more than 170,000,000 walleye eggs to meet stocking requests. In the past, stocking of walleye fry in the Iowa River, some feeder streams and at Sand Lake have been accomplished because of state-wide walleye production efforts.


By the time you are reading this story, there should be three hatched bald eagle babies in the nest at Decorah. The web site has shown over 5 million worldwide contacts to view the birds on the nest. Now that the baby birds are out of the shell, there will be more people watching the progress of America's emblem of freedom. Iowa has over 200 known bald eagle nests in at least 94 counties.


Today, from noon until 5 p.m., remember to check out how wildlife art in the form of taxidermy can be awesomely displayed. Members of the Iowa Taxidermy Association are meeting this weekend in Marshalltown at the Regency Inn. Check it out. Thanks.


"I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see." -John Burroughs, American naturalist and essayist.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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