by Angela Smith
What do fire management and lizards have in common? In Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the answer is a little surprising. Although wildland fires can be devastating, complete fire absence can also have an undesirable effect. Nearly 70 years of total fire suppression changed the landscape in the Ozarks and reduced the number of glades (areas with thin soil, rocky outcroppings, and sparse, grassy vegetation). Without fire, the glades became thick with cedar trees and other vegetation, and their open character was lost.Enter the collared lizard, known locally as "mountain boomer." About a foot long with bright, vibrant colors, our hero in this story eats lots of insects, can stand upright on its back legs, and run very fast. The collared lizard requires glades in which to live, and in the early to mid 1900s the loss of habitat from constant fire suppression caused their population to decline. In addition, some of the lizards became isolated from other groups which reduced the genetic diversity necessary for long term survivial.
In the 1980s Washington University and the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) transplanted 28 collared lizards to nearby Stegall Mountain. They survived, but didn't thrive or colonize other glades in the area until 1994 when the National Park Service and MDC began a prescribed fire program. The effect was dramatic. By 1999 there were 233 collard lizards living on Stegal Mountain. Within 5 years the collared lizard population increased to 233 and had spread to colonize 32 glade areas! By 2010 the population had more than doubled to 563 lizards and a new area, Mill Mountain, was being colonized.
What does this mean? We are learning important lessons from the successes of these lizards. Researchers believe that with wise fire management, a reversal of genetic isolation and population decline is possible. Resource managers now consider focusing on a landscape scale - using natural ecological processes - to maintain habitat. The "details" of specific species concerns will follow, as long as we are helping to provide the habitats in which they once thrived. Fire management is an important part of this landscape focus, and with continued wise prescribed fire practices, the collared lizards and other glade/savanna species will begin once again to thrive in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.