How to Fire Up Prairie Buck Habitat

The fire pictured above looks ready to do something awful. But the flames are well under control, thanks to the expertise of Ross Greden, owner of Back Forty Wildlife Management. Greden has let me assist him on prescribed burns for the last several years, and this week I tagged along as he worked on a 6-acre patch of prairie grass near my home.

Prairie is an important -- and increasingly rare -- habitat type for Midwestern whitetails. Tall grasses like big bluestem and switchgrass (which can grow as high as 8 feet) provide excellent fawning habitat during summer, as well as security cover for adult deer throughout the fall. In addition, the grasses and forbs provide whitetails with food. And the only way to maintain this habitat is through controlled burns, usually spaced three to five years apart. With the fire, shrubs and trees will gradually encroach and take over the prairie.

In this case, the grass had been planted four years prior and was ready for a torch, according to Greden. In the pre-settlement era, naturally occurring fires rejuvenated the prairie on a fairly regular basis. These days, we have to kick-start the process. Yet, of course, a raging, out-of-control inferno is not an option. That's where pros like Greden enter the picture. Before he set this blaze, he lit several "backfires" to create a perimeter of burned out material. When the head-high flames in this photo reached the perimeter, they simply died out. It took two hours for Greden to complete the burn, and he had things under control the entire time.

It should go without saying, but do not try this at home on your own. It takes training -- coupled with ideal conditions -- to pull off a safe, prescribed burn. If you're not plugged into a network of burning pros, a good place to get more information is through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has offices in virtually every county in the country. NRCS technicians can either help with a burn or point you to guys like Greden.

I'm excited to see the rejuvenation that this little patch of prairie will undergo in the months ahead. I've watched bucks use this spot for cover, and does rear their fawns here -- and I should continue to do so, thanks to a skilled pro and one very hot fire.