MDC uses prescribed fire as an important habitat management tool

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Kansas City
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Kansas City, Mo. – Carefully planned prescribed burns are an important tool for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) in preserving or enhancing native plant growth that creates the habitats where wildlife thrives. When smoke is rising from a public conservation area during late winter or early spring, it may mean that a coordinated MDC team with special equipment is conducting a burn with specific habitat improvement goals. Wildlife will benefit, and so will the wildlife watchers and hunters who visit later.

An MDC team conducted a prescribed burn on Feb. 2 at the Cooley Lake Conservation in Clay County east of Liberty. Cooley Lake is a Missouri River oxbow. It’s an old channel that was cut off from the main river long ago. Now, it’s a wetland. An MDC staffer counted almost 150 trumpeter swans on the wetland in January. But the surrounding old fields, bottomland timber, and the wooded uplands are important habitat, too, and often visited by people. Managing those habitats is a long-term process involving reports, record keeping, management plans, and adjustments to those plans. Fire is one of the tools.

The goal on Feb. 2 was to burn 70 acres of old fields west of the wetland and 47 acres of softwood bottomland timber. The fields have grown rank with vegetation not as friendly to wildlife as the habitat mix that once dominated bottomlands. So, the burn was conducted as part of a long-term plan to incorporate native grasses and wildflowers that do well in wet soils, similar to the now-rare wet prairies once found throughout the Missouri River bottoms. Returning a high diversity of native plants provides food for wildlife and the insects that benefit wildlife, as well as the pollinator species such as bees and butterflies that benefit people.

“This is going to benefit game species and non-game species as well as pollinators,” said Jeff Miller, the MDC wildlife management biologist in charge of managing Cooley Lake.

The burn removed vegetation from the old fields such as softwood tree saplings and excessive Reed’s canary grass. The latter is an aggressive non-native grass that forms monocultures that reduce desired plant diversity. Missouri’s native habitats were in part shaped by wildfires or fires set by indigenous peoples prior to European settlement. Knocking back the unwanted growth sets the stage for planting other natives with more benefits to wildlife such as prairie cordgrass, swamp milkweed, and various wildflowers. In the wooded area with cottonwoods, soft maples, and locust trees bordering a bluff, the burn helps reduce non-native invaders.

Factors such as weather conditions and fuel load dictate when a prescribed burn can be carried out. Another factor is the availability of a crew members and equipment to carry out a safe burn when weather conditions are right. Conservation area managers planning burns are weather watchers in late winter. For example, Miller has fire lines disced to bare soil for a planned burn at the Little Bean Marsh Conservation Area in Platte County. He also hopes to conduct a burn at the Platte Falls Conservation Area this year. If weather prevents that, future burns go into long-range habitat management plans.

MDC also has staff and programs that can help private landowners conduct prescribed burns on their property to improve wildlife habitat or cattle forage. Burns often benefit both. For more information about prescribed burns, visit