NRCS prescribed burns revive habitat

Burn 1
Prescribed burns that maintain Wetlands Reserve Program and WRP/RIM easements’ habitat continued this month as part of a five-year contract made possible by $3.3 million in dedicated Farm Bill funds from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. (Photo by Mark Plantz)

About 33,000 acres of wildlife habitat enrolled in Wetlands Reserve Program easements across Minnesota will benefit from prescribed burns planned over the next five years. The work is made possible by $3.3 million in dedicated Farm Bill funds from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

By early May, Red Rock Fire crews had burned about 4,500 acres involving 50 contracts.

The Otsego-based company started work under its five-year contract in October 2019, preparing for spring burns by scouting sites, writing burn plans and mowing fire breaks. By the end of the burn season on May 31, crews were scheduled to maintain about 8,000 acres involving 71 contracts — all at no cost to landowners.

“It’s definitely an advantage. With this system, they’re working on getting these lands cleaned up, getting the trees removed, getting the burns done, getting better habitat out there. It’s very little workload on the SWCD,” said Brent Gulbrandson, Grant Soil & Water Conservation District technical manager who previously worked on Grant County easements through NRCS.

A half-dozen Grant County easements are on this year’s list; six to 12 more are planned for next season.

“If NRCS continues this federal contracting and providing the burns at no cost and no headache to the landowner, in Grant County we’re going to try to get all of them burnt in the next couple years, or as many as landowners will allow us to,” Gulbrandson said.

Grant County’s 29 WRP and WRP/RIM (Reinvest in Minnesota) easement contracts total 2,460 acres.

Statewide WRP enrollments total 115,280 acres — including just over 50,000 acres enrolled in WRP/RIM contracts. WRP restores wetlands’ functionality and provides habitat for migratory waterfowl and other wildlife.

“If we don’t burn these easements on a pretty regular rotation, we’re going to end up with a very low-diversity stand of non-native grasses. We’re also going to have an excess of trees,” said Ryan Antholz, the Fergus Falls-based NRCS district conservationist who manages the contract.

Burning a prairie every four or five years suppresses trees and jump-starts native grasses and forbs smothered by the thick layer of dead grass.

Few landowners have the ability or knowledge to do the work themselves. Hiring a burn crew can cost as much as $200 an acre. Some landowners aren’t willing to pay up to $10,000 to maintain land that no longer generates income. Landowners receive a one-time easement payment. Their operational maintenance agreement centers on noxious weed control.

“A lot of burns were not getting done in a timely manner or just not getting done at all,” Antholz said.

The five-year burn contract was an extension of a successful NRCS pilot project in 2019.

Previously, NRCS field staff across the state worked with SWCD staff and landowners to identify easements in need of maintenance. NRCS staff scheduled prescribed burns as time and money allowed. SWCDs handled the paperwork. Statewide, about 15 burns were completed in an average year.

The NRCS contract will more than quadruple the number of WRP easements maintained each year.

“The more you can rejuvenate these grasses, you’re going to get taller grasses, you’re going to get a lot better habitat for nesting,” Gulbrandson said. That will benefit pheasants, ducks and other birds. “You get a lot more protection from hawks and eagles and owls.”

With forbs’ new growth comes more seeds and more insects for the chicks to eat.

“You’re going to get taller grasses for other wildlife, deer. Over time grasses kind of stunt themselves. You’ll get to the point where grasses won’t get more than 2 or 3 feet tall. You burn it, and your big bluestem and Indian grass will reach 5, 6 feet tall and provide a lot more habitat,” Gulbrandson said.

The maintenance burns have ranged from 15 acres to 450 acres.

Red Rock Fire crews follow the greenup, working from southeast to northwest across the state. Spring burns started in Freeborn and Steele counties in late March. By the second week in May crews were working near Detroit Lakes in Otter Tail County. The northernmost site on this season’s list is near Thief River Falls.

“One of the major goals of our company is to heal the earth,” said Mark Plantz, director of fire operations for Otsego-based Red Rock Fire and its parent company, Minnesota Native Landscapes.

“With this large number of acres, we are able to move site to site when the conditions aren’t right on certain sites,” Plantz said. “(We can) treat a lot more acres and do a lot more good work that needs to be done in a season, having the flexibility.”

— Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *