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Grand Forks County grasslands set for prescribed burns

A crew from Badger Creek Wildfire in Poplar, Mont., conducts a prescribed burn on the Oakville Prairie in October 2015. Burns on additional prairie parcels are set for later this month, weather permitting. (Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

A Montana company that specializes in prescribed burning has prepped three sites in Grand Forks County for controlled fires planned for later this month, providing weather conditions cooperate.

Badger Creek Wildfire of Poplar, Mont., is planning the burns on two quarter-sections at the UND-North Dakota Game and Fish Department jointly managed Oakville Prairie Wildlife Management Area near Emerado, N.D., and one quarter-section at the Game and Fish-owned Prairie Chicken Wildlife Management Area west of Manvel, N.D.

Prescribed fire is a key management tool for replenishing native grasslands and removing invasive plants and woody vegetation, but prepping the sites by mowing firebreaks and getting a feel for the lay of the land is the most important part of the burn, said Wayne Brown of Badger Creek Wildfire.

"If prep work is not done, you don't even think about" starting the fire, Brown said. "I think a lot of people don't realize the amount of prep that goes into doing prescribed fires—the prep work and the equipment needed and the man hours to do that. Lighting it on fire takes a couple of days, and then we're out of there, but the work we're doing now makes for safe burns."

The prep work at Oakville is complete, and Brown said he hoped to finish Prairie Chicken WMA on Tuesday afternoon. About 500 acres are scheduled for burning on the three sites, Brown said.

Fourth season

This will be the fourth fall in which Badger Creek has conducted prescribed burns at Oakville Prairie. Four of Oakville's seven units have been burned, Brown said, and the two scheduled for burning this month haven't previously been treated.

The units treated with prescribed fire have responded well, said Kathryn Yurkonis, a UND associate professor of biology. Plants such as big and little bluestem and yellow lady slippers, and birds such as savannah sparrows, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds, western meadowlarks and even prairie chickens have been observed on the treated lands, she said.

"Anybody who's keeping an eye on the vegetation is seeing a good, positive change with it," Yurkonis said. "Next year, we'll actually start hitting, with any luck, lands that have already been treated once, which is fantastic."

Recent rains have created wet conditions that slowed the prep work in some areas, Brown said, but the fuels slated for burning dry fast. A few days of drier weather will be needed before the layer of duff, or dead vegetation on the ground, will burn, he said.

The burn "prescription" requires a strict set of wind, temperature and humidity conditions before fires can be lit, Brown said, but if all goes according to plan, crews will burn the the sites the third week of October.

"I never put a date on the calendar because that's impossible to do," he said. "It's all based on the weather."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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