Burn crew professional monitors a prescribed burn on a Minnesota prairie.
Prairie management in Minnesota involves two main activities: creating regular disturbance and controlling invasive species. Most often, management activities are focused on the prairie's plant community with the goal of improving prairie health and habitat for wildlife.
Prairie is a "disturbance-driven" ecosystem: plants and animals have adapted to withstand and even thrive with regular disturbance—fire, grazing, and periodic droughts. Each disturbance favors different plants and animals, so it is important to include a variety of disturbance types, timing, and frequency.
Managing prairie today involves replicating the historic disturbances. There are no longer great herds of bison and elk on Minnesota's prairies but grazing with livestock and managed populations of bison and the use of prescribed fire can provide many of the benefits of historic disturbance.
Grazing can be a good tool for prairie management. The impacts depend on the timing, frequency, and intensity of its use. If improperly applied, it can be harmful to the prairie. It is not the right tool for every goal and may not be appropriate for every prairie. Using grazing for prairie management requires flexibility to adapt to ever-changing climatic conditions, vegetation, and wildlife response.
Prairie managers may prescribe fires, much like a doctor may prescribe treatments. A fire prescription dictates the timing and conditions that will accomplish management goals, while at the same time ensuring safety for those conducting a burn and others nearby. Prescribed fire can benefit prairies in many ways: it can bring a flush of new green growth, stimulate flowering and seed production, and help with invasive species control. Effects of fire are dependent on the timing, conditions, and frequency of burning. Prescribed fires should follow local, state, and federal regulations and provide unburned areas (refugia) that are important for pollinator and other invertebrate conservation.
Invasive Species and Woody Encroachment
Another important part of managing prairies today is prevention and control of invasive species. These species can take over prairie communities and change their structure, function, and diversity — eventually impacting prairie health. Common problem species in prairies include:
- birdsfoot trefoil
- common tansy
- crown vetch
- leafy spurge
- Queen Anne's lace
- wild parsnip
- Kentucky bluegrass
- reed canary grass
- smooth brome
Woody encroachment, if left unchecked, may turn a prairie into a forest. Both non-native and native trees and shrubs can be problems for prairie health. Commonly encroaching trees and shrubs include:
And some native species
A reality of managing prairies today is addressing the potential negative effects of pesticides (including insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides as well as their additives) on prairies and other grasslands. Pesticide drift from adjacent lands can also be harmful to prairie plants and animals. Find out more about ways you can protect prairies and their associated wildlife from pesticides: