When conservation groups burn natural land, does it disturb wildlife species? Simply put, yes.
Then why do we do it, and how can we call it “ecological fire” if it may harm some species?
Historically, fire was a natural part of the ecology of the Midwest before the land was settled by European-Americans 200 or more years ago. As settlers moved into the area, they did their best to suppress wildfires. After all, fire is dangerous and destructive, especially to human settlements that might be in the path of a fast-moving inferno.
However, over millennia, natural systems – plants, insects and wildlife – had developed to be well adapted to fire. And these systems suffered from the absence of regular landscape-scale burns.
The oaks that dominated the local landscape during settlement in the 1830s are a prime example. In 1837, when the Public Land Survey was done for McHenry County, 95% of the trees identified in the county were oaks, and the vast majority of those were bur oaks. Burs are known for their thick, corky bark that provides some protection from fire.
Historically, maples were found only in a few sheltered areas that had escaped the natural wildfires. Their bark does not afford protection from the flames. Today, maples are common. Maples grow quickly, and will grow well in shady areas. Oaks, by contrast, need ample sunlight to grow. These facts give maples a competitive advantage in a landscape without wildfires, and we can see this on the landscape in the increased numbers of maple trees in local woods.
When I first learned about “ecological fire,” I wondered about the effect on insects and small mammals. Over the years, I have learned that while there are some that die as a result of a fire, sufficient numbers survive to keep the populations going.
There is ample research on this fact, much conducted by scientists who study insect and animal species, so their allegiances are to the critters rather than the plants. Yet, even with the research, I think it is normal to wonder about the effects of such a powerful and destructive force on creatures that may not be able to move out of harm’s way.
The fact is that small mammals retreat to their burrows or climb trees. Amphibians like frogs and salamanders hunker down in the water until the fire passes. And, insect eggs and larvae are apparently in sufficient quantities that they are never all destroyed, even when the land looks like nothing could have survived.
A good local example of this is a small property that TLC manages near Woodstock, the 9-acre Prairie Ridge Fen at the northeast corner of Route 14 and Dean Street. There is an uncommon butterfly found at the property called a Baltimore Checkerspot. The butterfly depends on a specific wetland plant, turtlehead, for its lifecycle.
Over the years that TLC has managed the property, we’ve burned it several times. And, because of the property’s size and configuration, when it is burned, virtually the entire site goes up in flames. Add to that the fact that the property is isolated from other, similar habitat, and one might conclude that this would be a tough place for the Checkerspots to survive.
The first time I was involved in burning the site, it was such a complete burn that I worried we might have destroyed the Baltimore Checkerspot population in the process. Well, we didn’t. While I have little doubt that some butterfly eggs perished, the butterfly population continues to this day.
Personally, I think the best that people can do for nature is try our best to restore natural processes, and then trust the ecosystems to sort themselves out. After all, they have been around a lot longer than we have.
With Earth Day on April 22 and Arbor Day on the last Friday in April, this month is all about life on our home planet. (Check out those salamanders in the photo! Nothing says spring like a handful of baby salamanders!)
Earth Day was the brainchild of US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. After seeing the destruction caused by an oil spill in California in 1969, Nelson recognized the need for a national, grassroots movement focused on the issues of air and water pollution. He built bi-partisan support for the effort, and recruited an organizer to pull Earth Day together for April 22, 1970.
It has been a couple of years since I mentioned "The Big Three." With Earth month (April) starting on Wednesday, it seemed like a good time to refresh our collective memories!
The Big Three are the three things - in some combination - that all life needs to survive: air, water and food.
I admit it. I love cats. I also love songbirds. And, while my home cats are 100% indoor cats, my work cats are indoor-outdoor cats - in part because they keep the mouse and vole populations under control. (That's Remley doing his best panther imitation to the left.)
The work cats wear collars with bells, but that doesn't keep them from catching the occasional songbird. And it breaks my heart every time I see a dead goldfinch lying in the yard, because I know one of my cats killed it. So, I might as well say that I killed the bird since I let the cat outside.
Well, there is a new product available that was designed by people who love their cats, let them roam outdoors, AND also love songbirds: Birdsbesafe collars.
Change is hard. And, every change is for better or worse, depending upon your perspective. Change is particularly hard when it happens quickly. I’m sorry, but telling me “it’s easier if you just rip the bandage off real quick” doesn’t lessen the pain.
I have no doubt the 400 acres of trees and shrubs bulldozed and left burning in giant brush piles looked “worse” to the hundreds of neighbors on the north side of Woodstock a couple of weeks ago.
Today, most people know that birds migrate by flying south during winter, and then fly north again as the days grow longer and temperatures rise. We also understand that some birds fly great distances each year to move from their summer homes to their winter spots.
Did you know that our understanding of bird migration is a relatively recent development?
A friend of mine in New Mexico is descended from a Spanish family that has been in Albuquerque since 1593. His ancestors were among the first settlers given land grants by the church when Spain first settled that area. Wow. Four hundred and twenty-one years ago. Nearly 200 years before the United States was founded.
Over the past 544 million years, Earth's had five major extinction events. A major extinction is one where between 70% and 90% of all species on the planet are lost – never to be seen again. Each of the five was caused by a cataclysmic event – like the meteor that killed the dinosaurs when it slammed into the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago.
My husband and I have subscribed to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) service since 2007. For 18-20 weeks during the growing season (typically late June to early October), we receive fresh vegetables grown at a local farm. We like knowing the farmers, and have learned to prepare some vegetables we never would have tried otherwise.
I heard a story the other day about a situation where one neighbor did not like another neighbor’s pine tree because the branches grew over part of his yard and he thought the roots were going to crack his foundation. So, the fellow cut all the branches on his side of the tree back to the property line, and then dug a trench along the property line to sever the tree’s roots.