Skip to main content

Why would you burn a wildlife sanctuary?

Prescribed Fire for Habitat Management
Pete Deichmann, Coastal Sanctuaries Manager

On March 5, 2020, we executed a prescribed fire at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary with our friends at US Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

March 5, 2020
Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary
Temperature - 55 degrees 
Relative humidity - 60% 
Surface winds - Northeast at 21 mph
Transport wind speeds - North at 20 mph
Mixing height - 2800 feet 

When planning a prescribed fire, one becomes somewhat of an amateur meteorologist. There are multiple factors, both environmental and anthropogenic, that must fall into place to safely and efficiently conduct a prescribed burn, but first, why would we want to burn a wildlife sanctuary?

Most ecosystems in Texas, along with their assembly of plants and animals, have evolved with regular disturbance from wildfires. Historically, these fires were started by lightning strikes and carried across the landscape until they fizzled out. Native Americans would even set fire to large swaths of prairie to encourage the supple, nutritious, new shoots of warm season grasses to sprout, thus attracting herds of Bison, Deer and Antelope.

Until only recently, in the last 200 years or so, has fire on the landscape been suppressed. Forest understories are thickly overgrown, prairies have become shrub lands, invasive species are altering ecosystems, and the threat of more severe wildfires has increased due to the build-up of unburnt fuel. Some species like the Black Rail, which has recently been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act, are seeing their habitat in the coastal prairies and marshes developed or degraded by lack of management that their populations are declining.

Houston Audubon, in partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recently set out to restore this historic fire regime to Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary on the Bolivar Peninsula. A burn plan was developed and necessary permits acquired. Fire breaks were constructed using a Marshmaster, a “tank-like” mowing machine on tracks, to contain the fire to a specific area, and fire crews were put on notice. When weather conditions were favorable, an army of Houston Audubon, TPWD, and USFWS crews assembled with a fleet of Marshmasters, UTV’s, and fire engines to put fire on the ground.

It was the first time Houston Audubon has used prescribed fire as a habitat management tool. In all, a patchwork of about 100 acres was burned.  A “patchy” burn is ideal as it creates safety zones for any wildlife unable to completely escape the fire. In the end, we achieved our goals of reducing hazardous fuel loads, reducing woody vegetation in a coastal prairie system, and beating back invasive species like Macartney Rose. Prescribed fire is an extremely useful tool that Houston Audubon plans to use more frequently in the future.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Creating a Pocket Prairie in an Urban Backyard

In September of 2017, my girlfriend Amanda and I, along with our dog Scout, moved out of our apartment and into a house in Houston’s Sunset Heights. One of the selling points of this house was that it had a small backyard the three of us could enjoy together. It was a simple space comprised of zoysia grass, Japanese yew, and bamboo.

In June of 2018, Scout was sniffing around our backyard and decided to eat a couple of Japanese yew berries that had fallen on the ground. This led to her getting sick and spending the next two nights recovering at a veterinary clinic. This is the event that made me start to question everything growing in our backyard. Why did we have grass, shrubs, and bamboo from Asia? Why had we never seen a butterfly in our yard?

We decided we needed to make some changes. To begin my research, I read The Houston Atlas of Biodiversity by Houston Wilderness, Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy, and Native Texas Plants by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski. After rea…

Critical habitat is closer than you think - Rice University students create a Habitat Conservation Plan to support wildlife in our city

Across the world, species are rapidly disappearing before our eyes. This is a biodiversity crisis. Urbanization has caused habitat degradation, loss, and fragmentation, which contribute to the decrease in global biodiversity. At Rice University, fifteen students signed up for Dr. Cassidy Johnson’s Conservation Biology Lab in hopes of making changes on their campus and in their city to protect and enhance the local biodiversity. These students are creating and communicating their desires to implement a Habitat Conservation Plan at Rice University in order to contribute to urban conservation efforts right here in Houston. Their project tackles specific biodiversity concerns including critical habitat, bird conservation, pollinator gardens, medicinal gardens, carbon sequestration, and wetland restoration.

The following piece is written by students in the Conservation Biology Lab who are taking part in developing that plan. This is the first post in a series.
----- When people walk through…

Houston, we have an announcement. We’re now a Bird City!

We know that Houston is a vital city for birds, but now it’s official. Houston Audubon’s Conservation Team worked tirelessly in partnership with Houston Parks and Recreation Department (HPARD) Natural Resources Program to submit the application, and it paid off. Houston was honored as one of the first four cities to receive the Bird City Texas certification – an inaugural program by Audubon Texas and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).
So, what exactly does being a Bird City mean? The big picture is that we have demonstrated that our community cares about birds, habitat, and conservation. The growing popularity of planting native plants, restoring prairies, bird-friendly education programs, and the Houston Lights Out for Birds program to reduce collisions for migrating birds were among the many efforts and programs that got us this designation. (Go Houstonians!)
I personally witnessed the large amount of work that went into this application and was curious about what it entail…