The tallgrass prairie of eastern Kansas looks timeless, but it isn't a static ecosystem. There is constant encroachment from woodland biomes to the east, and periodic burning, along with grazing animals and drought, prevents a prairie from turning into a forest.
In pre-settlement times native peoples set fires to encourage new growth which attracted elk, bison and other game; they called prairie fire "the red buffalo." Modern cattlemen in the Flint Hills of Kansas continue the practice because, as the National Park service says, "The benefits of fire are enormous. The tied-up nutrients that take months or years to decay are within seconds turned to ash and in a form usable to plants. Sunlight warms the blackened ground and stimulates dormant plants to sprout and grow. Grazers are able to feed, uninhibited by dead litter, further stimulating growth. Trees and shrubs with the stems and branches exposed to the intense heat are killed, allowing the ground under them to receive full sunlight once again."
In other words, prairie needs fire to survive, but Flint Hills ranchers don't burn their pastures because of environmental concerns; they do so because a cow can put on two pounds of weight a day grazing on tallgrass prairie, or bluestem pasture as they call it, and the best way to keep that pasture productive is annual or semi-annual burning. That the burning also helps to protect an endangered landscape is just a bonus. Every year in March and April, they burn off the prairie, and a couple days ago I made a day trip out there to see it.
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When I drove up onto the Flint Hills near Saffordville there was burnt prairie as far as the eye could see, with only an old windmill punctuating the barrenness. This area was burned some time last week, and I began to wonder if I was too late to catch the burn.
To the south were pastures which were already greening up, which means they were burnt two or three weeks ago, but off in the distance was some smoke. Where there's smoke there's fire...
This little burn, struggling to advance into a strong north wind, isn't very impressive, but so far it's the only game in town.
Behind the fire-line are smoldering cow patties.
A close-up; these flames were no more dangerous than a Bic lighter.
Not many wildflowers were up yet, but these birdsfoot violets (Viola pedatifida) were everywhere.
I headed north from the little fire, enjoying the scenery whether it was burning or not. Here is unburnt prairie, still wearing its fall/winter colors, on the Tallgrass National Preserve north of Strong City.
The Lower Fox Creek School, a well-known landmark visible from Kansas Highway 177. Founded in 1884, the school was closed in 1930 as the local population began to decline. A tornado blew the original roof off and for a while the building was used to store hay, but it has since been restored and is now maintained by the National Park Service.
Back on the road. My day trip/quest for fire has turned into a matter of looking for smoke on the horizon then heading that direction.
Fire fire fire! In places the flames came right down to the road.
This Angus bull didn't seem concerned.
Smoke rolling over the hills.
An abandoned house and more smoke in the distance.
The cattlemen start burns in the center of a pasture, and the lines of flame spread out from there.
I pulled over here to watch flames move into a thick, matted stand of switch grass (Panicum virgatum).
The wind was from the north and I was south of the fire-line; not smart.
In the space of a couple seconds, this close-up turned into...
...this one. It's out of focus because I was backing up as fast as I could, which didn't seem nearly fast enough at the time.
The red buffalo.
Flowering trees (Cercis canadensis) stand out against the burnt landscape. If not for fire, stands of timber like this would spread from ravines and creek bottoms up onto the hillsides, and within a few decades the prairie would be a woodland.
Tallgrass in early summer, looking very different from the apparent ruination of the spring burn.
All images ©2011 by Nanatehay.