Prescribed fire necessary at national wildlife refuge

Prescribed fire necessary at national wildlife refuge

27 January 2010

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USA — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) utilizes a myriad of tools to improve habitats for the benefit of wildlife inhabiting Aransas National Wildlife Refuge including fire.

The USFWS has been using prescribed fire safely, expertly and cost-effectively since the 1930s, and to a limited degree, allows wildland fire use to play a role on its refuges. Lack of periodic fire in wild areas increases the risk of a catastrophic fire. Such high-intensity, destructive fires which will result from hazardous fuel accumulations will cause loss of plant and animal species and their habitats, damage soils, watersheds and water quality.

Wintertime burns benefit the critically-endangered whooping cranes. Reducing grass and brush make insects, reptiles, crayfish, and snails more visible to the cranes.

Although in winter the cranes maintain a steady diet of blue crab and various clam species, they also use upland coastal savannah sites for freshwater and alternate food sources such as acorns from a shrub known as running live oak. The problem is this type of oak tends to overrun part of the Refuge, rendering it useless to the cranes. The brush also creates a fire hazard to surrounding communities.

Utilizing prescribed fire, the top portion of the running live oak is killed off, allowing it to sprout again from its roots. Doing this controls hazardous fuels on the Refuge and at the same time benefits a critically endangered species.

National Whooping Crane Coordinator Tom Stehn said, “I have witnessed firsthand the birds return to the burn units the day after the fire, and will utilize the burn for several months.”

Crane burn units are burned on a three-year rotation to allow the running live oak to produce acorns for the cranes, and to improve the overall health of coastal savannah communities.

Dr. Felipe Chavez-Ramirez, executive director for the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust said, “Since cranes primarily inhabit salt marsh habitats, the availability of alternate food sources are very important, particularly during years when marsh foods are scarce.”

Fire is essential to managing the 115,000 acres that make up the Refuge to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants, and their habitats while protecting Service facilities and surrounding communities. The Refuge fire management program includes hazardous fuels reduction, wildfire management, and wildfire prevention. This involves technical expertise in firefighting and prescribed burning, an understanding of fire ecology, and interaction with the public.

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