Restoring Plants With Fire in Calumet

A firefighter spreading controlled fire in a prairie with tall grass

This post was written by Iza Redlinski, a Conservation Ecologist in the Keller Science Action Center. She participated in this recent prairie burn.

You may not think of winter as a time to prepare for spring flowers, but our ecologists are working hard to hopefully see some native plants emerge in a few months! 

In November 2016, Field Museum ecologists helped restore a natural habitat in East Chicago, Indiana—by using fire. This carefully controlled burn was part of a project to promote the return of native species. 

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Tall grass with fire and smoke in the background
Big bluestem grass, the state grass of Illinois, with the controlled burn in the background. Photos via Iza Redlinski.

Fire was once a natural landscape event, and the ecosystem evolved with that disturbance. Good restoration ecology practices include reintroducing fire through prescribed burns. Usually, only a small section of land is burned in a given year to allow hibernating insects to use the unburned areas as a refuge and repopulate the burned areas. 

This particular project began in 2013 when Field Museum ecologists started working with local partners in the Calumet region of Indiana to stop mowing on a 10-acre area of land. This area resembles the dune and swale ecosystem that is characteristic of Calumet. Once mowing stopped, over 50 native plant species—which were still present in both root mass and as seeds—came up. The plant list includes a rare mountain blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) that's endangered in Indiana.

The dune and swale ecosystem is characteristic to the areas surrounding the southern border of Lake Michigan. The dune ridges were made by the expanding and contracting of glacial Lake Chicago and result in sandy dry high ground with wetlands in between. 

The Field Museum is involved in monthly restoration efforts that prepare the land for future natural disturbances such as fire. Workdays take place on select Saturdays. Learn more about local habitat restoration, and join the effort yourself.