STOP 10: FIRE
The sandy region of northwest Wisconsin burned quite frequently prior to the arrival of settlers from Europe. Wildfires caused by lightening strikes burned across the droughty landscape until heavy rains or natural features such as lakes, rivers or heavier, wetter soils put out the flames. Native Americans burned the area frequently for a variety of reasons. Travel was easier and safer across recently burned land. Villages were safe from wildfire when surrounded by burned over land. Game animals were attracted to the lush vegetation that grew after a fire, and biting insects were reduced.
Hundreds of years of repeated fires favored a landscape composed of small trees, brush, and numerous species of prairie plants. Wildlife that adapted to this type of landscape thrived. Species such as upland sandpipers and sharp-tailed grouse were abundant. The original vegetation of Wisconsin at the time of European settlement was estimated to include approximately four to six million acres of barrens habitat. With settlement and effective fire control techniques, this type of habitat has been reduced to about 50,000 acres.
Wildlife managers use controlled fires, called prescribed burns, to maintain this increasingly rare habitat. Wildlife and plant species that were once abundant in Wisconsin are now confined to these isolated habitats where fire is used to manage them. For example, sharp-tailed grouse were so abundant prior to effective control of wildfires that early accounts of hunting by settlers frequently mention shooting enough sharp-tailed grouse in a day to fill their horse drawn wagons. Today, the entire population of sharp-tails in Wisconsin would probably not fill such a wagon.