Fire Helps Collared Lizards and Wild Turkeys

a greenish collared lizard on a rock
Collared lizard

Alan Templeton

by Dan Drees, Fire Ecologist

This summer, renowned ecologist Dr. Alan Templeton discovered collared lizards had successfully colonized the Mill Mountain prescribed fire unit at Ozark National Scenic Riverways (ONSR). This was the continuation of a project that Dr. Templeton started in 1979 with a search of this vicinity to determine if historic populations of the Eastern collared lizard still existed. No collared lizards were observed in the initial surveys.

The area's numerous igneous and dolomite glades had become too overgrown in trees, especially eastern red cedar. The historic populations of collared lizards probably had died out due to shading of their open glade habitat.

In 1982, cedar removal and small prescribed fires were initiated to reopen the best remaining glades on nearby Stegall Mountain. In 1984, collared lizards were captured from a healthy population 40 miles away and released on Stegall Mountain. After a few years Dr. Templeton realized that collared lizards were not moving to nearby glades that were separated by thin bands of dense woody vegetation, some only 50 meters wide.

Dr. Templeton suggested burning several hundred acres of glades and woodlands at once. At the time this was a radical concept in Missouri, but Dr. Templeton's data was compelling. In 1994 the first landscape-sized burn was completed on Stegall Mountain. The collared lizards immediately responded by colonizing several nearby glades.

One of Dr. Templeton's students found that grasshoppers were the primary food of local collared lizards. The research team also discovered that there was a 650% increase in grasshoppers in the prescribed burn units. Grasshoppers, and other ground dwelling insects, are also the primary food for turkey hatchlings.

three wild turkeys in a field
Wild Turkeys

Missouri Dept. of Conservation

Indeed, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) has recognized for a long time that glades, and their surrounding woodlands, should be properly managed with prescribed fire to create the optimal mix of nesting cover, brood rearing habitat, and acorn production. Locally, the NWTF has been an important ally in promoting the restoration of fire-dependent habitats that support a diversity of rare plants and animals, in addition to important game species.

Prescribed fire was initiated at ONSR to restore and maintain all of the park's native diversity. Nevertheless, the fact that prescribed fire has benefitted turkey and deer habitat has been an added bonus since most of ONSR is open to public hunting seasons.

In 1994, Dr. Templeton's dream was to see at least 2,000 contiguous acres in prescribed fire management. In 2009, the National Park Service, the Missouri Department of Conservation, and The Nature Conservancy joined forces to complete over 5,000 acres of prescribed fires in the Stegall Mountain area. Mill Mountain and other adjoining prescribed fire units are scheduled to be burned in 2010.

Last updated: January 5, 2018

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