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Managing Grasslands to Protect the Bison's Home

A historic prairie fire helps restore habitat for native species

Prescribed burn on Northern Great Plains with bison

A prescribed burn is prepared as bison watch safely from afar

A newborn calf teetered beside its mother as the bison herd moved farther away from the flames. The fire was no accident—it was intentionally set to restore habitat for several native species and revive the grasslands reserve which the bison call home.

A team of scientists, conservationists and staff from WWF, American Prairie Reserve (APR), and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) were gathered on the Montana prairie to burn 900 acres. The sight of the bison calf was a charming surprise.

A good omen

It is unusual to find a new calf this late in the year as bison cows usually give birth in spring. Some saw it as a hopeful sign for the historic task—the USFWS’s first prescribed burn on private land in cooperation with conservation organizations.

“It seemed like a good omen—one of rebirth,” said Dennis Jorgensen, Program Officer for WWF’s Northern Great Plains Program. The calf provided a powerful moment after months of planning and analysis for an activity that had been in doubt due to severe drought.

The eyes of onlookers teared from smoke as much as sentiment.

The burn began with black-lining—a process that scorches a three foot-wide strip at the perimeter of the burn area. Combined with a mowed firebreak, the black-line makes it difficult for flames to spread to the vegetation outside the burn area.

The fire removes tall grasses and shrubs that repel certain wildlife—species like the mountain plover which nests on shorter grasses. Such grassland birds are declining faster than any other bird guild in North America.

New growth after the burn attracts grazers like bison, which take advantage of the highly nutritious grasses and keep the vegetation low. The shorter grasses help prairie dog colonies naturally grow in size, which in turn is crucial to the successful recovery of black-footed ferrets. Prairie dogs also provide habitat for numerous other animals, like burrowing owls and swift foxes that rely on prairie dogs and their burrows for food and shelter.

Long-term prairie health

WWF, APR, and USFWS brought complementary skills to the prescribed burn. WWF and APR determined the biological goals and the appropriate burn site. USFWS developed the burn plan and brought the equipment and expertise to manage the fire.

Research involved assessing the grassland before and after the burn, measuring its effects on the habitat and its inhabitants. Vegetation compositions were sampled, prairie dog colonies counted, bison movements tracked, and surveys completed for grassland birds.

The fire is part of WWF’s long-term approach to maintaining healthy habitats and human communities in the Northern Great Plains region. Such work allows WWF to assess the potential of burns to support native species expansion and reduce encroachment by invasive species.

Ultimately, a healthy, vibrant and naturally managed landscape will balance human priorities and nature’s needs.