Firebreaks but no fire at the refuge

By Gaby Gerken

A sandhill crane pair  at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

A sandhill crane pair at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

For the past month the Metro Roving crew has had the good fortune of working at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. I grew up visiting state and national parks with my family, but had no idea that there are 560 refuges in the U.S.! These places provide habitat for hundreds of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species, including many that are threatened or endangered. Every year millions of migrating birds use the refuges as stopping points as they fly between their summer and winter homes. At Sherburne, one bird in particular stands out – the Sandhill crane. As you drive through the refuge you’ll see pairs of these birds flying and making their pterodactyl-like calls (trust me, it’s unique).

Another interesting fact about Sherburne is that the area was historically an oak savanna, which means that there are clumps of oak trees growing among prairie grasses and wildflowers. It is a rare landscape that requires fire to maintain. At Sherburne they regularly do prescribed burns, and we were anticipating getting to participate in some fires while we were there.

Sadly, the weather was not cooperative and we were unable to do any burning. The wind speed, direction and humidity have to be just right in order to burn, and the state has been so dry that they are afraid of starting wildfires. It was pretty disappointing for my crew since we were excited to burn after attending fire training in March, but the regular firefighters at the refuge keep reminding us that burn seasons come and go. There is not much you can do about the weather so you just have to cheer up and move on to other things! For us, that meant tagging burr oaks for a study, maintaining firebreaks, washing trucks, firebreaks, picking up fence posts and wire, firebreaks, maintaining trails and tools and, finally, more firebreaks.  

A completed firebreak at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

A completed firebreak at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

Maintaining a firebreak means walking parts of the refuge and clearing out a 50-foot section of any large debris that could potentially smolder after a burn, and then spreading embers to an area we do not want burned. I have to admit that firebreaks are not the most exciting activity in the world, but in the end we were rewarded with the chance to watch the season’s change; every location is different, there are always new trees and animals to be identified, and we are now familiar with all parts of the refuge.

Hopefully we will be back at Sherburne in the fall and can see first-hand how firebreaks help during a prescribed burn!

I’ll keep a tally of animals spotted each month and keep you updated with every post!

Animals Spotted: Snowy owl, tiger salamander, turkeys, blue-spotted salamander, pileated woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, gopher, raccoon, deer, various waterfowl, sandhill cranes, spring peeper frog, western chorus frog, leopard frog, painted turtle, beaver activity, unconfirmed bobcat print.

The Metro Roving crew decides where the tree will fall.

The Metro Roving crew decides where the tree will fall.