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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Rapai

Fire: Friend and Foe

Our friend Warren Whaley sent us some photos from the area of the Wilderness Trail fire that confirm that the fire did indeed burn through occupied habitat.

The photos are from an area along Staley Lake Road north of the West School Section Trail. The photos show an area that should be lush and green is now brown and charred. This was prime KW habitat, planted in 2013. In fact we helped to plant some of these trees on our annual Jack Pine Planting Day.

It's likely that there were nesting Kirtland's Warblers in the path of the fire. It's also likely that the adult birds would have abandoned their nests as the fire approached but the nests would have been destroyed. It breaks our hearts to think about it.

Fire in the jack pine has been a concern of biologists from the earliest part of the 20th century. Norman Wood, the curator of birds at the University of Michigan's Museum of Natural History and the person who discovered the first nest of the Kirtland's Warbler, concluded that fire was a bigger threat to the warbler than nest predation from the cowbird. While it might not have proven to be the most accurate observation, it certainly was accurate in identifying a threat.

We've come a long way in the understanding of the role of fire in this particular ecosystem since Wood's time. We now know that Native Americans used fire as a tool to create openings in the forest that would attract wildlife that they would then hunt for subsistence. We also know from the tragedy of the Make Lake Fire in 1980 that as much as we want harness fire as a tool, it doesn't necesssarily do what we ask it to do.

And while the government agencies that are responsible for Kirtland's Warbler conservation still use fire to create habitat, they do so with tremendous caution; restrictions are in place that would have prevented them from starting a prescribed burn on a day when the fire risk was so incredibly high. Unfortunately, they cannot control the actions of citizens who should know better.

And so we continue to try to figure it out and plan for the worst. One of the goals of the Kirtland's Warbler Conservation Plan is to get more Kirtland's Warblers to nest outside the core breeding area. As much as we love Kirtland's Warblers here in northern Michigan, we'd sure like them to spread out more. If we could, we'd tell more to nest in Ontario, Wisconsin and the UP. That way if there were some catastrophic event in the core of the breeding area, it would be much easier to rebuild the population with more birds spread out across the landscape.

The DNR, the Forest Service and the Conservation Team will embrace what we learn from the Wilderness Trail Fire and figure it into the plans for future conservation efforts. The Wilderness Trail Fire, unfortunately, provides us with another chance to learn, grow and adapt. We only wish the lessons did not come with so much pain.

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