As part of our Land and Resource Management Plan, we designated approximately 10,600 acres as open lands. This acreage specifically supports insects, game animals, grassland type birds, and mammals through open lands management.
Managing open lands involves keeping desired vegetation in an early stage of growth. We do this by cultivating and planting our wildlife plantings and cropland areas. We maintain grassland type habitat primarily by mowing, disking, prescribed fire and herbicide applications. These open land types provide food and shelter for hundreds of species at Land Between the Lakes.
Since the turn of the 21st Century, natural resource biologists like myself and other habitat managers, have been concerned over the decline of open land habitats. A decline in open lands means the decline of native animals, birds, reptiles, and insects that rely on open lands for survival.
Why open lands
The open land habitat community helps turkeys; Northern bobwhite quail; Henslow’s sparrows; the small sparrow-like Dickcissels; Ruby-throated hummingbirds; evening and big brown bats; moles, voles, and shrews; rabbits, bees, and many butterfly species.
In 2010 for the first time at Land Between the Lakes, we recorded two pairs of the Henslow’s sparrow nesting in a managed hayfield in the Woodlands Nature Watch Area.
The Henslow’s sparrow continues to be observed in our nature watch area. We have also observed success with their babies’ survival. These birds also live in the Elk and Bison Prairie and two of our other warm season grassland areas.
All these wildlife species depend upon disturbances that cause, what we call, early succession habitats.
Disturbance Dependent Habitats
Early succession habitats is a phrase we use to describe areas that have an:
- Open under-story,
- Zero to a small amount of tree canopy cover, and
- Abundance of herbaceous and/or woody ground cover.
Examples of plants in this habitat include wildflowers, vines, berry bushes, clover, crops, and native grasses.
Our goal managing native grassland open lands is to maintain, where possible, these lands in the range of approximately 70% wildflower and 30% grass community composition. Native grassland areas can have wildflowers such as butterfly milkweed, many varieties of native sunflowers, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, blazing stars, goldenrods, and grasses including big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, Eastern gama grass, and switch grass.
We want to promote annual wildflowers and grasses because they produce an abundance of flowers and seeds that help sustain their long-term survival. They also provide food for a wide variety of wildlife species.
Areas where all those seeds drop from the wildflowers and grasses plus all the bugs that feed on plants is what we call wildlife forage habitat. Forage habitat is an area where animals search for food.
For example, birds that forage over early successional habitats include:
- Swallows and flycatchers in search of flying insects,
- Vireos look for insects on plants; and
- Sparrows, turkey, and quail look for insects and seed on the ground.
Wildflower and native grass types have various stem height and plant structure that also benefit wildlife for nesting cover to protect their young.
The open under-story allows for easy movement through the field by animals. This is especially important for baby chicks. This openness also keeps the food in sight for easy accessibility.
Herbaceous/woody ground cover provides enough “canopy” for small animals to hide from predators like hawks. This ground cover also offers shelter from sun and rain and provides a source of nesting material for wildlife in open lands and adjacent forested areas.
How land stays “open”
Historically land in our region experienced regular disturbances that would keep the land open through
- Lightning strikes causing wildfires,
- High winds, ice storm, and rain events blowing down trees and uprooting other vegetation,
- Native Americans burning/clearing areas to cultivate fertile land for crops and native grasses for wild game grazing,
- European settlers using some of the same areas cleared by Native Americans and clearing even more land for farming and other industrial resource uses.
Without disturbances, open lands would turn into forests leaving many birds and animals homeless and/or without food.
Today, some of the activities we use to keep open lands open include:
- Removing invasive species to promote desired vegetation,
- Restoring native grasses and wildflowers,
- Prescribed burning of fields,
- Disking of fields,
- Planting crops (corn, soybeans, and winter wheat) and wildlife food plots (clover)
- Reclaiming open lands by grinding woody plants and trees, and
- Mowing fields and
In addition to Forest Service staff, we manage much of our open lands through contracts, partnerships, cooperative agreements, and special use permits.
Two important partners in our open lands management program include our farmers and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Our farmers help us keep land open on approximately 3,000 acres. They cultivate crops, maintain early successional habitats in fallow fields and field borders plus cut hayfields for us.
The National Wild Turkey Federation helps us maintain over 1,000 acres of wildlife habitat annually. They do this through wildlife plantings, reclaiming/restoring openlands, removing invasive species, and disking vegetation back into the earth.
Our onsite contractor, EnviroSmart Inc. also helps us. They maintain around 1,000 acres of open lands habitat annually.
Make it Happen
Prescribed fire serves as one of the most economical ways to keep open lands open. It’s best to maintain early successional habitats on a one to three year prescribed fire rotation.
Weather permitting, we plan to burn this fall to effectively kill woody growth and thin out grasses in favor of more wildflowers that will grow in the spring.
We plan to be site specific. Prescribed fire will occur on a small scale. Areas burned will range in size from about 25 acres to 100 acres.
Working with our Fire Management Specialist Todd Lerke, we have prescribed a patch-work of burned and unburned areas for wildlife and plant species diversity and use in these areas.
Long term management has us restoring and then maintaining approximately a 70% wildflower and 30% grass community composition on our native grassland open land types. By doing this, we will also be maintaining hundreds of species of wildlife dependent upon this disturbance dependent habitat for their survival.
It is our intention by providing quality habitat for our wildlife, we also offer fantastic wildlife viewing for our visitors.
Sources for more information
Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area’s Land and Resource Management Plan
NWTF and U.S. Forest Service Award Recognizes Conservation Achievements
Introduction: What Are Early Successional Habitats, Why Are They Important, and How Can They Be Sustained?
Additional Information about Prescribed Burning
Prescribed burning is designed to be implemented under desired parameters, resources, and weather. Final decision to implement a burn occurs on the scheduled burn day.
Prescribed burning is done under a set of criteria that takes into account:
- Moisture of the vegetation
- Smoke dispersion
The Forest Service coordinates with the National Weather Service on predictive weather patterns. Prescribed fire managers also use HYSPLIT — Hybrid Single Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory Model — to predict and subsequently limit public safety hazards posed by smoke intruding into populated areas. On-site monitoring will also play an active role in the implementation to minimize potential impacts of smoke. The Forest Service will use Air Quality Monitoring equipment during these burns.
Smoke from prescribed fire can be a nuisance to some people and a health concern to others. In the evenings, smoke settles into low lying areas, including drainages, and lifts back up by mid-morning when the sun rises. Residents in low lying areas may be affected. To reduce exposure, keep windows, doors and vents closed at night.
In contrast, wild fires last for long periods of time and release much more smoke into the air. Wild fires usually occur when fuel moistures are low and conditions favorable for intense burning. They also consume more vegetation/trees than prescribed burns.
Prescribed burns reduce hazardous fuels, help remove unwanted species that threaten desired plants and trees, improve habitat conditions for wildlife species, and promote growth of trees, wildflowers, and other fire dependent plants. Prescribed burns can also be used to help control insects and disease in vegetation.
Land Between the Lakes natural resource managers mainly use fire to improve forest health and habitat diversity. Area universities use prescribed burning for their environmental education projects studying the impact of fire on plants, birds, and animals, in addition to reporting on landscape conditions. Outdoor recreation enthusiasts enjoy viewing wildlife and birds thriving in the oak/hickory forests that depend on fire. Hunters find more game animals in these areas. They say it’s because of the quality of the food source with the acorns and hickory nuts.
Controlled burning is an efficient way to keep open lands open and forests healthy.
For more information regarding prescribed burning:
Land Between the Lakes Fire Management Plan
U.S. National Park Service Benefits of Fire Flyer
Fire and Aviation Management Prescribed Fire Webpage
Keeping Fire on the Ground: Resource Specialist Perspectives on the Kaibab National Forest
Above prescribed burning information previously posted on December 8, 2015 found at https://landbetweenthelakes.us/prescribed-burns-planned-for-december-at-land- between-the-lakes/.