For most people, sparks blazing a path across a dry forest would be cause for panic, but not all fires foreshadow disaster. Prescribed burns, or planned and controlled fires, often benefit the ecology of an area rather than cause mass destruction.
Over time, invasive species crowd out other plants and put a strain on competing species in the ecosystem. Natural forest fires have traditionally provided periodic disturbance to regulate the ecosystem.
In April, this type of conservation management tactic was used to improve habitat for the bats that call Chariton Hills Conservation Bank (CHCB) home.
A Home for Bats
The CHCB, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-approved conservation bank, includes habitat for the federally endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) and federally threatened northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis) in Missouri. Both species roost and forage in forests in the eastern and midwestern U.S.
The bank was created to provide mitigation offsets to third parties who have project impacts with the bank service area in the form of preapproved credits. With these preapproved conservation bank credits, clients can expedite permitting efforts, service specific mitigation obligations, control costs and limit future Endangered Species Act (ESA) obligations. Credits from the CHCB can be used to offset impacts throughout Missouri, with the primary service area in the northern part of the state and the secondary service area focusing on the southern part of the state.
At over 1,300 acres, the CHCB strives to conserve lands and consolidate any mitigation requirements into larger, more ecologically viable sites. Long-term management of the conservation area is a priority, which includes use of prescribed burns as a forest management technique.
Improving the Habitat
Burning approximately 120 acres this past spring provided benefits for Indiana bats, northern long-eared bats and other species. The fire burned up many undesirable and invasive plants, such as eastern redcedar and multiflora rose. The prescribed burn also thinned out dense stands of younger trees. Most larger trees survived the low-intensity burn, but a few were killed by the fire. These larger standing dead trees, which are also called snags, can become potential roost trees for bats. As the snags age, the bark begins to peel away from the trunk, and this creates perfect roosting areas for bats to rest during the day and shelter their young. A high-quality snag can hold over 100 bats in the summer, so these are vital habitat features for these species.
A prescribed burn also stimulates growth of native trees, wildflowers and grasses that are ecologically adapted to periodic fires. Often, seeds lay dormant in the soil until a disturbance event, such as when a fire removes dominant plants. Pollinators, such as monarch butterflies, can also benefit from planned fires by stimulating growth of wildflowers.
Safety Is Key
When conducting a burn, it’s critical to keep safety at the forefront of every decision. Before setting up a prescribed burn, the proper authorities need to be notified, such as emergency personnel and nearby neighbors. All stakeholders involved in the process should be fully informed to keep everyone aware of any safety concerns.
A prescribed burn professional, also called a burn boss, writes a burn plan, which specifies the weather and vegetation conditions necessary for a safe burn. Firebreaks, or trails devoid of vegetation used to stop the burn, also need to be incorporated to prevent the fire from spreading.
Forest Management Alternatives
Prescribed burns are used periodically to benefit the habitat. Other forest management techniques also supplement the benefits of a prescribed burn. Thinning, or the cutting down of trees and other brush, reduces invasive species. Trees can also be girdled, where a strip of a bark is removed around the entire circumference of a tree to create a potential roost tree for bats.
Forest management techniques are dependent on the specific ecosystem and management goals, as well as the resources available.
While there are many alternative and complementary forest management techniques, many ecosystems were historically adapted to periodic fire and can benefit from a restoration of a fire regime. With the proper safety measures and the necessary knowledge, a prescribed burn can support a healthy ecosystem and benefit a variety of species.
Conservation banks and wetland mitigation banks can provide regulatory certainty, expedite timelines and preserve project budgets by providing a pre-approved solution for environmental permitting.