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Are Drought and Fire the Great Equalizers?

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This question developed during a farm visit while discussing fence line contrast of rangeland between a property that had been well managed for years and a neighboring property. Our objective was to evaluate rangeland health of forage for cattle and sheep, and wildlife habitat following the impacts of 2011 - drought and wildfire.

The landowner is worried that drought and fire reduced rangeland health on his property to that of poorly managed properties. Most, but not all, of the property had been burned either by a September 2011 wildfire or a late summer 2010 prescribed burn. The area burned in the 2010 prescribed fire did not burn in the 2011 wildfire and, in fact, served to stop the wildfire. The neighboring property was subjected to drought, grazing and the 2011 wildfire. Overall, there was not much difference in plant communities between the two burns, possibly due to the effects of drought.

Understanding the importance of forage management, the landowner de-stocked cattle. Sheep are still being grazed, stocked at a rate of approximately 30 acres per animal unit. Most of the pastures are rested from grazing. An increase in bare ground due to the drought and fires, and ensuing rest from grazing, created an abundance of cool-season annual grasses in most pastures. The presence of cool-season grasses may prove significant in regard to moisture retention during the 2012 growing season. Although these annuals competed with warm-season grasses during spring for moisture, their presence during summer may help conserve moisture by shading the ground and provide protection from wind erosion and cover for grassland birds. Unfortunately, they may also increase the risk of wildfire this year.

Drought and fire appeared to harm warm-season grasses and eliminated plant litter on both properties. Some little bluestem plants were completely dead and some had one or more sprouts growing from the original crown. Cool-season grasses and litter were notably absent from the neighboring property and warm-season grasses were grazed short.

Did drought and fire equalize rangeland health of the well managed property with that of other properties? Time should demonstrate that rest from grazing, more herbaceous plants covering the soil and healthier warm-season grasses will pay big dividends and allow more rapid and complete recovery on the well managed property.

prescribed burningA fence line contrast showing differences in post-wildfire rangeland management. The pasture on the left (note standing dead cool-season annuals) was rested. The neighboring property on the right was grazed.
prescribed burningWarm-season native grasses growing under and within cool-season grass carcasses in a rested pasture following a wildfire. These grasses appeared less abundant and were cropped short on the neighboring property.
prescribed burningLittle bluestem regrowth (from the perimeter of the crown) during the first growing season following a severe wildfire in September. Rainfall for the 2012 growing season continues to be below normal.
prescribed burningFirst growing season following last year's drought and September wildfire. Abundant bare ground and overhead herbaceous plant canopy is ideal brood habitat for many grassland birds.

Russell Stevens served as the strategic consultant manager and a wildlife and range consultant at Noble Research Institute. He received a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology from the Southeastern Oklahoma State University and a master’s degree in animal science (range and wildlife option) from Angelo State University.