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Grazing and Fire

Centuries of controlled grassland loss responsible for adaptable, fertile prairies today
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  • photo by Scott Stephens
  • photo by Jim Ringelman
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From the Texas Gulf Coast to the Prairie Pothole Region of the Great Plains, centuries of short-term grazing and periodic fire shaped the structure and function of grassland ecosystems. Prairie grasses are adapted to tolerate loss of plant material, and, in fact, respond to fire and moderate grazing with vigorous growth. Livestock and wildlife, in turn, depend on healthy grasslands for nutrition and shelter.

The ability of native grasses to thrive in the face of fire and grazing is a result of their defensive design. Plants grow from points, known as apical meristems. In grasses, these points are located beneath the soil surface. This unique adaptation protects them from disturbances that destroy or seriously damage other plants.

Properly managed grazing regimes are beneficial to livestock, wildlife, and native prairie. The absence of grazing significantly decreases productivity and species diversity on prairie grasslands. Alternatively, over-grazing poses a serious threat to species diversity and habitat structure. Diversity is compromised when non-natives invade an area, soil and nutrient loss exceed recovery rates, and productivity of plant resources declines.

Some areas of the Prairie Pothole Region, where the topography is rocky and rough, have never been plowed. The primary land use on these areas over the last 100 years has been livestock grazing. Locations where native prairie exists adjacent to wetlands are some of the continent’s best waterfowl nesting habitat.

In the spring each year mottled ducks, black-bellied whistling ducks, and fulvous whistling ducks breed in pastures along the Gulf of Mexico coast where livestock grazing is properly managed. Grasslands of the Gulf Coast of Texas host significant populations of wintering waterfowl, shorebirds and livestock.

Because prairie grasses are adapted to fire, fire is often used as a management tool to maintain their health and productivity. Burning grasses enhances grassland vigor by increasing species diversity, reducing noxious weeds and eliminating woody vegetation. Species diversity is enhanced as grasses are given room to grow when undesirable invading species are removed. Woody plants and noxious weeds are common invaders of prairie wetlands and grasslands deprived of fire.

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