Management of the Baker Wetlands
Baker Wetlands has been committed to fulfilling the mission of teaching, research, and restoration of natural habitats since its beginning in 1968.
Baker University uses the Wetlands to fulfill its mission through educational experiences at the facility. Over the years thousands of students from Baker University and other area universities and a multitude of public school classes have toured the facility and conducted research. The areas of research include population ecology of certain reptiles and birds, migration patterns of birds and salamanders, abundance and distribution of hydric plants, air quality, water quality, properties of Wabash soils, the change in plant populations associated with rehydration of the area, small mammal populations, water table fluctuations, presence of chemically resistant bacteria and others.
In 1969 the National Park Service added the Baker Wetlands as part of the National Natural Landmark program. This particular designation was greatly aided by Dr. E. Raymond Hall, former director of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and the State Biological Survey, and was largely based on the potential for restoring the area to natural habitat. At the time of the designation, less than 8 percent of the area was in natural habitat.
Over the past 40-plus years, Baker has used the area to host laboratory exercises for General Biology, Introductions to Organismal Biology and Ecology, ZoologyGeneral Ecology, Botany, Plant Taxonomy, Dendrology, Microbiology, Ornithology, Animal Behavior, Vertebrate Natural History, Wildlife Management, and Wetland and Prairie Ecology. Through these various activities and the assistance of many others, we have developed checklists on 1) birds, 2) all other vertebrates and , and 3) vascular plants. These lists are available online or in print form at several locations around the wetlands.
The primary goal of the management plan is to maintain the area as a diverse natural habitat with an emphasis on wet meadows. It is believed that historically, this was the primary habitat in the area. The primary issue with this habitat is the encroachment of woody vegetation, primarily dogwood, sumac, elm, ash, honey locust, and hedge. Because of lack of funds, mowing has never been an option in woody-vegetation control in the past. The primary technique has been prescribed burning. Multiple studies indicate that historically, native prairies probably burned two out of every five years and perhaps even less frequently. However, 150 years ago there were few trees to produce seed to invade the prairie, and this fire frequency was adequate to reduce woody vegetation. Today the invasive woody vegetation is everywhere and burning every other year is the minimum. Annual burning stimulates grasses and reduces forb growth. However, many of the plots at the wetlands are already dominated by grasses and because of high water tables and luxuriant growth, the grasses create a major fire hazard if not burned annually.
To have the greatest impact on reducing woody vegetation, it is critical to wait until the woody vegetation has budded out. It is the most vulnerable to fire at that time. This usually happens in the latter part of April, but most landowners in the area get anxious and burn in March, thus reducing the impact on woody vegetation. There are several drawbacks to burning in late April. Some non-native cool season grasses, like brome and fescue, are green by then, making the fire more smoky, which is an imposition on neighbors. Also, if waterfowl are nesting, they are just starting to lay eggs in late April. So, prescribed burning is always a trade-off between goals.
Conducting a Prescribed Burn
There are several primary goals in conducting a burn: Reduce the dead vegetation load, damage the woody vegetative growth, confine the fire to the intended area and conduct the fire safely. Taking the following precautions helps us reach these goals.
Create a Fire Lane
Probably the most important component of a controlled burn is to have an adequate fire lane. Ideally, the fire lane is permanent and periodically mowed during the growing season and once more after growth stops in the fall. This minimizes the dry litter on the lane, and it encourages the growth of cool-season grasses early in the spring before the burn is conducted. A green fire lane is the best type, then bare soil, gravel or asphalt.
Know the Weather
Don’t burn when winds are gusty, erratic, or over 15 miles per hour. If a front will pass through the area during the burn, it is likely that the wind will change direction and become gusty. Keep in mind that light rain will evaporate from grasses fairly quickly and may not prevent doing a burn the same day.
Have a Plan & Communicate
It is also important that everyone participating understand the intended plan: Go over it with a map. This way, if the fire jumps the fire break, people should be able to recognize it more quickly and react.
Contact the Sheriff or Fire Department or Both
Before setting the fire, be sure to call sheriff dispatch to notify them that you are doing a prescribed burn and who you are. Let them know that if someone reports a fire in the area, they should use your name; otherwise, it could just be a passerby who does not know it is a totally safe prescribed burn.
Be in Good Physical Condition
All assistants should be in good physical condition. If not, don’t expect them to carry a 40- to 50-pound water pack around for an hour and be able to run with it in an emergency.
Wear Proper Clothing
When conducting a burn, wear long sleeves, long pants (jeans are best), and leather boots. This is good protection from the heat and allows you to get close to the fire if necessary. It is also critical to avoid nylon or other fabrics that could melt onto your skin when close the fire. If you have long hair, tuck it up under a hat. It is easy for loose, flying hair to be singed off your head.
Communicate During the Fire
Two-way radios are the best way to communicate during a fire so that key personnel know how to respond and how to direct those without radios. The person lighting the fire, the person with the backup water and several people with backpacks are usually sufficient. If there are enough personnel for a spotter, he or she should have a radio as well. When using the radio be sure to wait a second before speaking because most two-ways have a pause before the frequency responds.
Be Calm. Don’t Overreact
If you follow the proper technique, there should be no need to panic. With experience, you can learn to anticipate what the fire will do next and be ready to act at the right time.
Fight Fire Aggressively
When it is time to react, you can't react half-heartedly. Fire can be dangerous, and you must know when and how to stop it at the right time. It takes three things to sustain a fire: oxygen, fuel and heat. If the fire has jumped the fire line and is out of control or is simply burning where it shouldn't be, the component to consider is fuel. Grass is usually in clumps or has occasional breaks: Look for these because these provide the best place to attack the fire and have any hope of controlling it with a backpack water pump. It is best to be in the burnt side of the grass so that you can squirt water directly at the base of the fire rather than standing on the unburned side trying to squirt through the standing grass.
Mop Up & Call Dispatch When Done
Check the perimeter when done to ensure that the fire is contained. Check for dead trees on fire that could fall across the fire break and catch the adjacent grass on fire. When you are done and the area is secured, call the dispatch to indicate that you are done. That way if a fire is reported later, they can react appropriately.
Fire cannot manage all of the woody vegetation. Cutting brush and trees is another important component of the management plan. In the past there was no funding to hire it done or to purchase the necessary equipment. With the mitigation for the South Lawrence Trafficway, funds have become available to purchase equipment to better manage the woody vegetation, in conjunction with the annual spring burns.
It is also important to remember that brushy habitat is also an important habitat for some species, so not all brushy habitat should be eliminated. Some of the avian species that depend on brushy habitats are bell’s and white-eyed vireos, indigo bunting, blue grosbeak, dickcissel, yellow-breasted chat and black-billed cuckoos to name a few.
Another aspect of the management plan is to monitor the changes that have occurred. This allows us to know whether we are moving in the right direction or we need to make additional adjustments.
Dr. Calvin Cink, former Baker University biology professor, has monitored amphibian and reptile populations from the early 1990s until 2012. Much of this monitoring has focused in the northwest quadrant, but surveys have periodically included other areas. Dr. Cink has also monitored breeding and wintering bird populations on three permanent grids established in the 1980s. Some of these surveys have been published in American Birds and Journal of Field Ornithology.
Dr. Roger Boyd has been monitoring the changes that have occurred in the plant communities through the transition to wetter conditions and the return to more hydrophytic vegetation as well as the changes that have occurred within the restoration areas. Surveys have been conducted every five years beginning in 1991 in the northwest quadrant and the west native wet meadow area. Both areas have a permanent grid system. The east meadow was added to the habitat program in 2011.