The Free Press, Mankato, MN


October 13, 2012

Greg Hoch: Smoke on the horizon: prairie fires restore

— Any fan of 19th century Midwestern history will note the numerous references to prairie fires. 

They will also note that most of these fires were in the fall, especially October.  Today, most prescribed fires for wildlife habitat management are conducted in April.

The tallgrass prairie may be the most fire-dependent ecosystem on the continent. Without fire, the rainfall is high enough to support trees.  Because the first explorers to western Minnesota reported treeless landscapes, we can conclude that fires were frequent.  Indeed, many historical references describe annual fires.  Today, most management fires are conducted at four to ten year intervals. 

Out West, despite what Smokey the Bore says, lightning starts most fires.  Lightning storms in the Midwest are almost always accompanied by heavy rain.  It’s not unusual to walk hilltop prairies after a storm and find a three square foot patch of black ash.  Lightning hit, ignited the grass, but was immediately put out by the rain.  If lightning caused prairie fires, they would occur in the spring and summer when thunderstorms are most common. 

Based on the frequency and season of prairie fires in the prairie, we can conclude that Native Americans started the vast majority of these fires.  This makes perfect sense if we consider why they lit many of these fires, hunting.  They lit lines of fire upwind of a herd of bison, elk, or deer to force them into a river or valley for waiting hunters.  Other times they would circle a herd with fire, concentrating the animals.  Most hunting was done in the fall when the animals were fattest after eating all summer, the meat could be easily preserved in the cooler temperatures, and food could be stored up for the long winter ahead. 

Minnesota’s prairies suffer a number of modern-day ills.  Some prairie are simply lost to the plow.  Other prairies are threatened by invasive species, which often lowers the diversity.  Trees have invaded many prairies, which completely changes their character and dramatically lowers the suitability of these areas for songbirds and gamebirds.  There is a large body of scientific literature showing that nesting success among waterfowl, gamebirds such as pheasants and prairie chickens, and songbirds decreases dramatically when trees invade into the prairie. 

Text Only | Photo Reprints
  • mfp sports-jc outdoor column-7-27 Singing the praises of the prairie When pioneers first traveled through Minnesota, they marveled at the seemingly endless, inland sea of tall grass prairie that greeted them.It is estimated more than 18 million acres of grasslands stretched from the southeast to the northwest corners

    July 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • mfp sports jcross outdoor column 7-20 Chasing walleyes in South Dakota nice We slowed to a crawl the other day on the dusty Day County township road in northeast South Dakota, a courtesy to the farmer who was baling ditch hay south of Webster.Otherwise, we would have enveloped him as he drove his open tractor in the choking

    July 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Fishing report Outlook on area lakes

    July 6, 2014

  • Cross column: No wake, no fish ... no problems on the water Patience is always a virtue when fishing.

    July 6, 2014

  • Know Your Lakes: Series maps

    Missed out on the weekly lake preview Wednesday's in the print edition? That's ok, we have you covered here. View the series thus far and download a printable PDF.

    May 24, 2011

  • Cross column: Where does the buck stop in your home?

    Displaying your trophy catch can be debatable

    June 29, 2014

  • Storms came at horrible time for pheasants For pheasants and pheasant hunters, there were no silver linings to be found in the storm clouds that inundated the countryside with heavy rains this week.A foot of rain falling in just a week is never good, but for pheasants, it came at precisely th

    June 22, 2014

  • Early morning is beautifully lonely Benjamin Franklin was on to something when he extolled the benefits of "early to bed, early to rise." While I can't vouch for its effect on health, wealth or wisdom, rolling out of the sack certainly seems to pay dividends for outdoor activities. The

    June 15, 2014

  • mfp sports cross column 6-1 Cross: Take a kid fishing, no license needed A few years ago, while cruising with a co-worker through an area community on a steamy summer day, we passed a vacant lot. There, oblivious to the heat and humidity, a group of kids were playing a game of pick-up baseball, racing down well-worn paths

    June 2, 2014 1 Photo

  • Cross: Once upon a time, when fishing was simple... Once upon a time, fishing was a pretty simple affair. A rod-and-reel, some bait and tackle, perhaps a rowboat if you were lucky, and you were in business. While the basic premise of angling -- to catch fish -- remains, it sure seems to have grown mor

    May 25, 2014