Bringing back native grasslands after wildfire

Black smoke and flames engulfed more than a million acres of grassland across the Texas Panhandle, but with the help of rain and enough recovery time, the grass can come back stronger. (Sam Craft/Texas A&M AgriLife.)

AgriLife Extension offers range restoration tips after Panhandle wildfires.

The first blades of green grass have already shown up in native grasslands blackened in the wake of the Smokehouse Creek Fire or other fires in the Texas Panhandle over the past month.

But green grass doesn’t equate to available grazing for ranchers. True recovery will take time, according to Morgan Treadwell, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service range specialist, San Angelo, and Jeff Goodwin, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M Center for Grazinglands and Ranch Management, both in the Texas A&M Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management.

“This isn’t just an ecological recovery; it’s a construction recovery – lost fences and water infrastructure – and even a mental recovery, too,” Treadwell said. “So, it is time to take a big step back and evaluate our purpose as stewards of rangelands and allow time for rest and recovery.”

Top tips to keep in mind

While Treadwell and Goodwin know this isn’t the first fire for many ranchers, the two experts offered a few tips to keep in mind:

– Keep livestock off burned pastures where possible until adequate forage recovery has occurred.
– Find lease land for animals or designate a sacrifice pasture or trap pasture if fences remain intact and there are unburned areas to graze.
– Destock and cull animals. The market is high, so if there are no fences, water or grass, send key seedstock to feedlots or sell now and buy back when the land is recovered.
– Collect hay donations where there is room for cattle to stay during range recovery. Isolate those hay areas to avoid heavy traffic in recently burned areas and the consequences of potential undesirable weed establishment. 
– Assess fence needs.
– Assess water/poly line needs.
– Build a list of priorities in rebuilding infrastructure.
– Keep detailed daily records and receipts of expenses, animals euthanized and replacement material purchased.

Pastures were left bare after wildfire swept across them, but with time and rain, the grasslands will come back stronger and healthier. (Sam Craft/Texas A&M AgriLife)
Pastures were left bare after wildfire swept across them, but with time and rain, the grasslands will come back stronger and healthier. (Sam Craft/Texas A&M AgriLife)

Grasses will recover stronger, with time

Ecologically speaking, native perennial grasses are very resilient against fire, Treadwell said. This wildfire was unique in that it moved very quickly pushed by extreme high winds and extreme gusts, which pre-heated the fuel ahead of the fire. However, these factors provide optimism because the duration and dosage of heat wasn’t prolonged.

Rangeland takes time to grow grass after a fire, she said, and rainfall is needed to jumpstart natural recovery processes.

“The green grass that is already showing is a great sign, but we need to make sure those root systems below ground are strong,” Treadwell said. “We need to make sure plant crowns have every opportunity to recover and start developing, growing leaf tissue and beginning the photosynthesis process all over again.”

Recovery time will depend on moisture and the nutrient contents in the soil that support grass growth. Take the stress off recovering pasture by letting it rest. There is no cookie-cutter timeline for how long to stay off the pasture. Treadwell said it is completely contingent on rainfall and soil composition.

“We have to put our stewardship hats back on and make sure that we take care of the land so it can take care of us, yet again,” she said.

Destruction provides opportunity

When ranchers begin building back their herd, Treadwell said they should keep the next fire in mind – because it is not an “if” situation, but rather a “when” situation. Wildfires are starting to resemble historical fire frequencies, and in the Panhandle, that was every two to five years.

Building back smarter and including recovery space is important, she said. Here are a few tips to think about when the rebuilding begins:

– Fire-friendly fences are a must, and that means coming back with all steel.

“Everyone loves a good cedar post, but you can lose them quickly, even with a low-intensity fire, because they hold embers and will smoke forever,” she said. “Build back with steel where possible, and work with neighbors in prioritizing all steel perimeter fencing.”

– For water development, use of non-buried polyline does not make sense in a fire-prone ecosystem.

– Mark where donated hay is dropped because that will be the first place where introduced or invasive species may show up.

– Take inventory and keep detailed records of when you start to see recovery occur. When possible, identify the species of grasses that are responding the quickest – it will give you an idea for forage production later in the year.

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– Plan the build back — do you want to lay out the same fencing structure and same pastures? This is a challenge, but also an opportunity to improve efficiency; now is the time to reconfigure pastures in relation to water, varying terrain or soil types, and to use roads and existing infrastructure more strategically from a wildfire mitigation standpoint.

– Strategic location of pastures. Think about building trap pastures that can protect the headquarters more — concentrating animal grazing around the headquarters can create a cost-effective fire break.

“Strategic thinking should guide how we come back,” Treadwell said. “For example, take time to pinpoint vulnerable areas — maybe that is the southwest area of your ranch where the prevailing winds come from. Start buffering or mitigating the next fire approaching on that vulnerable side.”

Fire is fire and native perennial grasses benefit

Treadwell said fire is fire, whether that is in a prescribed fire or wildfire — in the end, fires are beneficial and completely synergistic to grasslands.  

“This fire is an opportunity to build resiliency and strength into our ranching livelihoods by way of stewarding our native perennial grasses,” she said. “Resetting brush density is an advantage that our producers will reap the benefits from for years and generations to come with proper grazing management.”

Fire suppresses encroaching trees, cactus and brush, stunting undesirable species. Pastures allowed to recover should flourish in terms of native plant communities and diversity of native grasses, especially following rains, she said. This is a natural process and the very disturbance that built native grasslands full of fertile soils.

Fire also makes the soil more productive, she said. Soils are full of organic material due to historic fires injecting more nutrients from above-ground biomass through combustion.

“It has a massive fertilizer effect for future grasses, and it all starts below ground,” she said. “Right now, above ground, we are seeing direct effects of fire, but below ground life is flourishing and thriving. We just have to be patient and give nature time for those effects to transition above ground.”

Additionally, such a widespread impact on invasive trees and brush will also positively affect recharge in aquifers and stream systems.

Moving forward with intention

Treadwell said now is the right time to plan ahead.

There are many tools in the toolbox, she said. Proactive prescribed fire is one of the tools, but it is not for everyone. Cattle and livestock are the next best thing to reduce the fuel loads and create a footprint that will complement existing fire breaks, like roads encircling headquarters and mechanically thinning or removing woody plants near structures.

“Read the system, the landscape,” she said. “No two years will ever be the same. Fuel accumulation for this fire occurred in a relatively short timeframe. We grew a lot of grass, and it cured quickly, and before we knew it, we were in a record-breaking fire season.”

The ability to pivot, to adapt, to read the landscape and proactively address potential dangers takes knowledge, experience and science, she said.

“We must be aware of the challenges Mother Nature is setting us up for before we are dealing with them, because when we are reacting to them, we don’t have flexibility to manage the situation. But if we are proactively reading them ahead of time, then we have room to adapt and respond in a way that is more successful in the long-term.”

Reading the landscape in terms of fuel accumulation is key. If grass growth is booming, it may mean grazing fuel loads down to manageable levels.

Landowners managing for wildlife should develop mutually beneficial relationships with grazing neighbors to flash graze deferred landscapes and actively manage potential fuels for a fire-ready response.

“I’m not saying overgraze or overstock, but we have to create some defendable spaces in these native plant systems that allow us to live in them and manage them,” Treadwell said.

TOP PHOTO: Black smoke and flames engulfed more than a million acres of grassland across the Texas Panhandle, but with the help of rain and enough recovery time, the grass can come back stronger. (Sam Craft/Texas A&M AgriLife.)