Why We Burn

Sanctuary stewards in safety gear stand over a patch of scorched ground at Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary.

Seán Mullett, Sam Brodley, and Lance Rogalski pause for a moment while conducting a prescribed burn at Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary.

April is traditionally the peak of burn season in the land stewardship world. You’ve probably noticed more controlled/prescribed burn photos filling up your social media feed; people dressed in yellow, flames and smoke over charred ground. But for as much of the media coverage as these burns get, you don’t often see the stories behind the need for them.

Controlled burns can take place for a number of reasons – to treat and manage invasive species like autumn olive, or in some prairie environments, to prevent trees and shrubs from encroaching and crowding out essential sun-loving wildflowers and prairie plants. Over the past month, MNA stewards conducted prescribed burns at several of its sanctuaries, including Butternut Creek Sanctuary in Berrien County, the goal of which was to maintain the open grassland features of the prairie fen. Prairie fens are critical habitat for a high number of imperiled and declining species including the federally endangered Mitchell’s Satyr, one of the rarest butterflies in the world; known only to exist in Midwestern fens that were created by the retreating glaciers. While the Mitchell’s Satyr has not been observed at this particular sanctuary for a number of years, maintaining healthy prairie fen communities like that found at Butternut Creek is essential to improving threatened, fen-dependent species across the state.

In an excerpt from MNA’s spring 2011 magazine, Conservation Director Andrew Bacon explains:

Historically, fire crept through the understory of the forest, but did not necessarily ignite the mid- or upper-levels of the canopy as observed in the intense wildfires of recent times. Prior to human settlement, fire prevented shade-tolerant trees from populating oak-hickory forests, oak barrens and open communities. Without fire, trees like red maple, American beech, basswood and elm survive in the understory and fill gaps in the forest canopy.

As gaps are filled, less sunlight reaches the forest floor, making it impossible for shade-intolerant species like oak and hickory to grow. Herbaceous prairie and savanna species also become shaded out as trees become established. Slowly, the entire species composition of natural communities changes, and many species of plants and animals must find food and habitat elsewhere.

Prescribed fires have had significant and measurable results, such as restoring and protecting the habitat of the federally-endangered Karner blue butterfly. Without active management to keep these critical habitats healthy, these species and other habitat specialists like them would be at greater risk of decline.

3rd Edition of Walking Paths Release

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3rd Edition of Walking Paths & Protected Areas of the Keweenaw

Walking Paths cover

Walking Paths & Protected Areas of the Keweenaw is a guide that features publicly accessible nature and wildlife sanctuaries, preserves, and parks located in Houghton and Keweenaw Counties on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula that have been protected through citizen action and private initiative.

These special places provide both residents and visitors the opportunity to encounter a variety of native habitats, interesting plant species, and unique geological features in this nothernmost part of Michigan, as well as a glimpse of Michigan before European settlement and the nineteenth century copper boom. These are places where natural processes can unfold with minimal human interruption or alteration.

List of Sanctuaries in Walking Paths 3rd Ed. 2


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Forest Birds, Fish Slides, and Rare Butterflies: this week in environmental news

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Magnolia Warbler. Image: Jon Swanson.

Great Lakes forest birds mostly stable or increasing (Great Lakes Echo): A record study that took 25 years and 700 birdwatchers and researchers has found that most birds at three different national forests in the Great Lakes region are either increasing or stable. The study is another great example of the important role volunteer bird watchers can play in tracking populations of the birds they love. The count became an annual tradition for many bird enthusiasts. The study is cause for guarded optimism about the state of forest birds in the Northwestern Great Lakes Basin.

Fish slides, anyone? (Great Lakes Echo): Sturgeon go back to the river to spawn safely. But hydroelectric dams often block rivers, forcing fish to spawn in more dangerous spaces. Listen to this podcast to learn more about how the River Alliance of Wisconsin is giving fish a little boost.

Healthy ravines for healthy watersheds (Great Lakes Echo): Created by the same retreating glaciers that carved and filled the Great Lakes, you could say lakeshore ravines are the lakes’ blood relatives. Great lakes ravines face deterioration at the hands of invasive species and pollution. Conservationists are working to address this issue.

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The Poweshiek Skipperling is an endangered butterfly that lives mainly in prairie fen wetlands in southeast Michigan. Image: Dave Cuthrell, MSU Extension.

Rare butterfly rests its wings in unique SE Michigan ecosystem (Great Lakes Echo): Listen to WKAR’s radio story about Kevin Lavery’s expedition to find the endangered Poweshiek Skipperling. It’s only found in a half a dozen places on Earth, and two-thirds of them are in Michigan. The rare butterfly once thrived on the Great Plains is now fighting for its survival in Michigan.

MI Invasive Species, Poweshiek Skipperlings, and Bees: this week in environmental news

Michigan Invasive Species (MI.gov): Does your work take you to several outdoor sites in one day? Do you fish or hunt at different locations in the same week? If so, your actions could be considered high-risk for spreading species around the state. Want to learn more? Take a few minutes to watch this new video that briefly explains the best ways to look for and remove invasive species.

poweshiek skipperling

Poweshiek skipperling. Photo: Erik Runquist/Minnesota Zoo.

The Poweshiek Skipperling: A Prairie Butterfly on the Brink (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species): Poweshiek skipperlings are small butterflies that live only in native prairies that have never been plowed, which makes them vulnerable. Until recently, the species (Oarisma poweshiek) was one of the most common prairie-obligate skipper in the Midwest. Yet, in the last decade, surveyors observed an abrupt and rapid decline in the species, and population after population began to vanish. Despite extensive surveys, the skipperling appears to exist in critically low numbers at just a handful of sites scattered between Wisconsin, Michigan, and Manitoba.

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The proposed trail. Image: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Trail segment installed at Sleeping Bear (Great Lakes Echo): A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held recently for a new segment of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The trail will eventually run 27 miles from Empire northeast about halfway up the Leelanau Peninsula. To limit environmental impact, the trail follows existing utility corridors, abandoned roads and a narrow gauge railroad. That minimizes its impact on forested areas and wetlands. Boardwalks are built with helical piles, a more environmentally friendly alternative to cement foundations. Instead of digging up landscape and pouring permanent cement, the piles screw directly into the ground and can be unscrewed if needed.

MSU researcher: more wild bee habitat would benefit growers (Great Lakes Echo): For farmers across Michigan and the country, pollination is essential for making their crops grow. For years now, they’ve kept a close eye on a key pollinator, bees, mainly because their numbers have been declining. Listen to the podcast with Rufus Isaacs, a professor of entomology at MSU, to learn more.