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Controlled prairie burns to take place in Lakeshore Nature Preserve

April 4, 2015 By Susannah Brooks

Photo: Workers performing controlled burn

Representatives of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve and employees of Quercus Land Stewardship Services conduct a controlled prairie burn in the Biocore Prairie in 2011.


No cause for alarm: If citizens see smoke on the west end of the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus this weekend, it’s part of nature’s plan.

Trained staff from Quercus Land Stewardship Services will conduct prescribed prairie burns in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve on Sunday, April 5. Burning in the first location — still to be determined, based on weather conditions — will likely begin in the late morning. Monitoring the wind will help minimize the amount of smoke reaching nearby buildings and roads.

Priority burn units include the Eagle Heights Woods Indian mounds at the west end of the housing area, the Willow Creek savanna behind the Natatorium and several units along Picnic Point.

Burns on the Biocore Prairie, another priority unit located near the Eagle Heights community gardens, will set aside several unburned sections to protect ongoing research examining the impact of snow cover and climate change on plant communities.

The use of fire as a prairie management technique, now widespread, relies heavily on studies conducted by UW–Madison researchers in the Arboretum. Prairie burns mimic fires, often set by American Indians, which swept the Wisconsin landscape before European settlers arrived.

Recovery from a prairie burn encourages renewal of the entire ecosystem. Hardy roots and buds remain beneath the soil while shallow-rooted invasive plants burn away; removal of leaf litter, dead trees and invading brush helps maintain the health of oak savannas.

These types of burns are carefully planned to take place during favorable conditions in the fall and spring. Early spring burns typically occur when desirable plant and animal species are less active: After the snow has melted and before significant “green-up” takes place, allowing ephemeral wildflowers to emerge safely after the burn.