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DNR burns so native grass can thrive

Controlled burning is the DNR's way of clearing out vegetation so native prairie grasses can make a comeback. (Brian Basham/Tribune)

Controlled burns can range anywhere from a couple acres to hundreds of acres, and it's all about restoring and maintaining native prairie lands.

The Detroit Lakes Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Management office covers the western portion of Becker County, Mahnomen County and Norman County, and within those three counties are 50 wildlife management areas -- many of which are burned on a three to four year rotation.

"They can vary quite a bit from a few acres, some of them no more than three or four acres. Actually, we just did one yesterday (Monday) in Mahnomen County that our burn site was about 280 acres," Assistant Area Wildlife Manager Tom Kucera said. "And in the past, occasionally, we have done bigger than that."

The reason for the controlled burns is restoration and control.

There are two types of grasses on prairie lands, native grasses and introduced grasses. With the burns, Kucera said the DNR is trying to restore and maintain the native grasses.

"Historically, fire has been an important management thing as far as maintaining native prairie and that's the primary reason," he said of the burns.

Besides restoring the native grasses, the burns also help keep down the brush, he added.

Portions of the land the DNR now maintain were once farmland, so the introduced grasses are higher in those areas. With the burns, the DNR is hoping to get rid of those introduced grasses and help the natives grow back.

"It's an ongoing effort to restore those back to native prairies," he said.

And when they are finally restored, burns will still be done to maintain the prairie grasses, or the land will revert to brush and introduced grasses.

But what about the wildlife nesting in the areas being burned?

Howard Mooney, with the DNR Forestry Department, said that when burning, only portions are burned at a time so the birds and ducks will re-nest in the area. He said yes, some nests do get burned, but it's a trade off -- one that pays off in the end.

Long term, the birds are better off because they will have better nesting when the natives are restored.

Kucera said especially in Mahnomen and Norman counties in the prairie chicken areas, "they depend on those open landscapes there, especially in the wetter sites. If they go for too long without (burning), they'll be overtaken by brush and certainly make them less attractive to prairie chickens and other critters."

The Detroit Lakes DNR does their burning in the springtime because it's easier to find the manpower from other agencies for assistance. The crew size varies with the amount of land being burned. On the 280-acre piece in Mahnomen, Kucera said there were nine people working the fire.

"Certainly not all of us were from this office. We had one of the wildlife fellows out of Bemidji and three out of Park Rapids," he said. "We depend on getting help from the forestry folks, too, and from adjacent offices because we just don't have enough bodies in our own office."