More Controlled Burning Needed in Kansas Tallgrass Prairies

By Jolyn Johnston-Myers
June 09, 2016

New research from Kansas State University calls for an increase in the frequency of controlled burning in Kansas tallgrass prairies.

The study used 40 years of data collected at the Konza Prairie Biological Station. It found that waiting more than three years to conduct a controlled burning of prairie grasslands was waiting too long, allowing for woody vegetation to start taking hold and overpowering the native grasses.

The solution is to burn more frequently, according to Konza Prairie Biological Station director John Briggs. Otherwise, Briggs says the native species of grasses and other animals and organisms would be lost to the shrubs, cedar trees and other invasive woodland vegetation.

“The tallgrass prairie is very unique in that most people think of a preserve or a place you are going to protect, you can just put a fence around it and let it be, and it’s going to take care of itself,” said Briggs. “Unfortunately, that’s no longer possible with our system. We have to introduce, or do prescribe burning in this system.”

Fire is a powerful tool for maintaining grassland vitality. But Briggs says once an area gets to a woodland state, fire alone cannot always bring it back.

“Other means are very expensive or very harmful,” Briggs explained. “For example, either mechanically removing it or using herbicides – once it gets there, we don’t know if we can transfer that back to a grassland just using fire.”

Briggs acknowledges that burning can be controversial because of the smoke it creates and recommends that land managers and communities continue to work together to abate the level of smoke caused by burning.