Officials with Hagerman Wildlife Refuge and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a series of prescribed fires at the refuge this week as a part of experiments and studies related to the restoration of natural prairies and plains. The controlled fire of nearly 60 acres of land on Wednesday and Thursday were a part of a joint study between Oklahoma State University and the University of Texas.
“Broadly speaking, this is about habitat maintenance,” Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge Deputy Manager Paul Balkenbush said. “This is in benefit of restoring our prairies and supporting our pollinators.”
At its peak, the Texas Blackland Prairie made up nearly 20 million of acres of land surrounding the refuge and across the state. However, due to encroachment and impacts of human activity, the size of the prairies is now only 1 percent of its original size.
In part, Balkenbush said this is due to reduction and control of natural wildfires across the prairie by humans. In the past, these regular fires would often balance the ecosystem and prevent the growth of larger trees and other plants in the ecosystem.
Beyond removing the invasive growth, Balkenbush said the blackened land also helps absorb heat for the seeds and new growth that will come in addition to adding nutrients to the soil. For animal species, the young growth also provides a source of food, he said.
As humans have worked to control these wildfires, it has allowed much of what was once open prairie to become overgrown and forested over the centuries. This in part has reduced the coverage area of some species, including the American buffalo and other plant species, which have been shaded by the taller plants. Additionally, it has also reduced the number of flowering plants in the region that would attract bees and other beneficial animals and insects.
For the controlled fires, Balkenbush said the past few days have been good weather for the burns. By midweek, the air had also dried enough to make the control fires possible, Locust Volunteer Fire Department Lt. James Blake, who provided support service during the fire, said.
Winds were not high enough to provide a threat, but were strong enough to move the fire in the right direction. In order to get the desired area burned, Balkenbush said fire crews worked backward over small segments using the wind to direct the fire toward previously burned areas and other firebreaks.
Elinor Lichtenberg, a research fellow with UT Austin, said the fires were a part of 11 controlled fire sites on public and private land in Texas and Oklahoma. Through these burns, Lichtenberg said researchers want to determine the impact of wildfires on bringing back pollinator species and protocols for controlled fires.
In addition to these studies, Lichtenberg said researchers will also look at the impact to milkweed, which is important to the life cycle of the monarch butterfly.
For the study, officials with the refuge conducted two, five-acre controlled fires. One of the sites will be seeded with native plants and grasses while the other will not. A third, 50-acre fire will not receive any additional planting or seeding, Balkenbush said.
Lichtenberg said that previous studies primarily focused on the impact to plant species and not on pollinators.
“A lot of research focuses on plants on the assumption that benefiting the plant benefits the pollinators,” she said.
In addition to the study areas, Balkenbush said an additional 30-acre area will be burned as part of site maintenance. Following a wet end of the summer and a dry fall and winter, pants have grown and since died creating ample fuel for fires. With the threat of fire, Balkenbush said it is better to burn off the excess fuel in a controlled fire than risk a larger fire.