Fire Regime

prairie burning
prairie burning

After climate it can be said that fire is the next most important determinant in the spread and maintenance of prairie grassland. Fire interacts with other factors that influence grassland and determine vegetation patterns. Grasses are generally better adapted to drought than most tree species. Grasslands include climates with periodic drought that permits the vegetation to dry. Lightning which easily sparks the driest regions of prairie started the first fires thousands of years ago.

Landscapes that are level to gently rolling allow fire to spread across extensive areas. Grasslands subjected to fire suppression will rapidly convert to shrub-lands or forests. To these universal features we can add dominance by grazing animals. Gleason (1922) proposed that the adaptation that protects grasses from drought was their ability to die down to underground organs, exposing only dead tops above ground. He noted that the same adaptation that protects grassland plants from drought and overgrazing also affords protection from fire.

The Red Buffalo

This was the name given to prairie fire by tribes of plains Indians before European settlement. Most ecologist agree that for the last 5,000 years, prairie vegetation would have mostly disappeared if it had not been for the burning of these grasslands. The American Indian perhaps observed that prairie burned by lightning strikes would soon yield green pastures. By mimicking nature and burning the prairie in desirable locations, the growth of fresh shoots of highly nutritional native grasses was insured.

There is undeniable evidence that the massive herds of bison would range hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to find these areas of fresh green growth. It is apparent that cultivation of such areas using fire would reduce that amount of labor involved in tracking and hunting the grazing animals those early plains peoples relied on for survival.

Therefore, it can be said hunter-gathers and later organized tribes of Plains Indians were North America’s first large-scale land managers.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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