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Burned Again, Like So Many Times Before: Setting the prairie aflame to protect native species

In Animal News on April 30, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Students at Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University had quite a surprise as they rushed to class last Thursday. Many quickly scrambled for their cell phones to snap pictures of smoke billowing and flames shooting up from the prairie grass that runs along sidewalks on campus.

“What is this?” I heard one student say, shielding his eyes from the heat.

It was the periodic burn of the prairie areas at NEIU, prescribed by the Department of Geography & Environmental Studies as well as the Department of Biology.

“These burns help the native species that may be hindered by overgrowth of plants that really shouldn’t be here,” said Department Chairman Dr. Erick Howenstine. The burns kill off the invasive species of plants that outgrow and cover up the natural vegetation found in this part of the state.

As invasive plants were introduced with the settlement of Europeans in the early 19th century, they overtook the native plants. Consequently, the insects and animals that make homes in these prairies and rely on native plants for sustenance endured challenges as well. The wildlife that roamed these parts included beavers, foxes, deer, and diverse species of birds. Many of these animals still exist in the region, but they are not nearly as prevalent as they were prior to development.

Professors led student volunteers in the burn, and I was eager to participate having heard about it being done in the past. I walked away with the know-how of operating a drift torch, as well as a reddened, slightly charred face.

NEIU Biology Instructor Dr. Steven Frankel said, “Had you been here before the bulldozers and buildings, you would see open wetlands and prairie savannas, abundant with White Oak trees and other native species.” Now, like the rest of the Chicago metropolitan area, development has destroyed the intricacy of many similar habitats. We go to school here and we know that every bit counts in today’s urbanized world.

The team of volunteers grabbed their council rakes and started clearing a barrier to keep the fire contained. Not a typical day on the campus of Northeastern Illinois University, but yet again, an educational one. —Nicholas Brandt

Nicholas Brandt is an Environmental Studies major at Northeastern Illinois University. He will travel to Ecuador later this spring to monitor shark populations off the coast of Puerto Lopez.

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