, Volume 31, Issue 1, pp 35–44 | Cite as

Does Prescribed Fire Benefit Wetland Vegetation?

  • Conception FloresEmail author
  • Dixie L. Bounds
  • Douglas E. Ruby


The effects of fire on wetland vegetation in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States are poorly known, despite the historical use of fire by federal, state, and private landowners in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Prescribed fire is widely used by land managers to promote vegetation that is beneficial to migratory waterfowl, muskrats, and other native wildlife and to reduce competition from less desirable plant species. We compared vegetative response to two fire rotations, annual burns and 3-year burns, and two control sites, Control 1 and Control 2. We tested the effects of fire within six tidal marsh wetlands at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area in Maryland. We examined changes in total live biomass (all species), total stem density, litter, and changes in live biomass and stem density of four dominant wetland plant species (11 variables). Our results suggest that annual prescribed fires will decrease the accumulation of litter, increase the biomass and stem densities of some wetland plants generally considered less desirable for wildlife, and have little or no effect on other wetland plants previously thought to benefit from fire.


Biomass Distichlis spicata Marsh Schoenoplectus americanus Spartina alterniflora Spartina patens Stem density 



We thank the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service for funding the project. We are grateful to Bjorn Burgeson, Katherine Thorington, Fred Adams, and Alice Brown for assistance in biomass collection. Thanks to the Blackwater NWR staff, especially, Glenn Carowan, Bill Giese, Keith Morris, Roger Stone, and the Blackwater Fire Crew. Statistical assistance and support was provided by Jeff S. Hatfield, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center; Dr. Mary Christman, University of Maryland College Park; Dr. Patricia Jones, University of Arizona; Dr. David Turner, USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station; and Dawn Lawson and Toni Mizerek, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest. The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


  1. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (2000) Fire Management Plan. US Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  2. Bray MP (1984) An evaluation of heron and egret marsh nesting habitat and possible effects of burning. The Murrelet 65:57–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Chabreck RH (1982) Effect of burn date on regrowth rate of Scirpus olneyi and Spartina patens. Proceedings Annual Conference Southeast Association Fish and Wildlife Agencies 35:201–210Google Scholar
  4. Flores C (2003) Evaluation of vegetative response to fire exclusion and prescribed fire rotation on Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area. MS Thesis, University of Maryland Eastern ShoreGoogle Scholar
  5. Flores C, Bounds DL (2001) First year response of prescribed fire on wetland vegetation in Dorchester County Maryland. Wetland Journal 13:15–23Google Scholar
  6. Foote L (1996) Coastal wetlands—questions of management. International Waterfowl Symposium 7:149–158Google Scholar
  7. Frost CC (1996) Presettlement fire frequency regimes of the United States: a first approximation. In: Pruden TL, Brennan LA (eds) Fire in ecosystem management: shifting the paradigm from suppression to prescription. Proceedings of the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference No 20 Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, pp 70–81Google Scholar
  8. Gabrey SW, Afton AD (2001) Plant community composition and biomass in Gulf Coast Chenier Plain marshes: responses to winter burning and structural marsh management. Environmental Management 27:281–293CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Gentile AC (1971) Plant growth. The Natural History Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. Giese MW (2008) A Federal foundation for wildlife conservation: the evolution of the National Wildlife Refuge System 1920–1968. Dissertation, American UniversityGoogle Scholar
  11. Givens LS (1962) Use of fire on southeastern wildlife refuges. Proceedings of the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference 1:121–126Google Scholar
  12. Gross MF, Hardisky MA, Klemas V (1990) Inter-annual spatial variability in the response of Spartina alterniflora biomass to amount of precipitation. Journal of Coastal Research 6:949–960Google Scholar
  13. Hackney CT, de la Cruz AA (1981) Effects of fire on brackish marsh communities: management implications. Wetlands 1:75–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hale MG, Orcutt DM (1987) The physiology of plants under stress. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  15. Hatfield JS, Krafft CC (2009) Analysis of vegetation changes in Rock Creek Park 1991–2007. Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NCR/NCRO/NRTR—2009/001 United States Department of the Interior National Park Service, Washington DCGoogle Scholar
  16. Hess TJ Jr (1975) An evaluation of methods for managing stands of Scirpus olneyi. MS Thesis, Louisiana State UniversityGoogle Scholar
  17. Hoffpauir CM (1967) Marsh burning. In: Newson JD (ed) Proceedings of the Marsh and Estuary management symposium. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, pp 1–12Google Scholar
  18. Hoffpauir CM (1968) Burning for coastal management. In: Newson JD (ed) Proceedings of the Marsh and Estuary management symposium. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, pp 134–139Google Scholar
  19. Johnson SR, Knapp AK (1993) The effects of fire on gas exchange and aboveground biomass production in annually vs. biennially burned Spartina pictinata wetlands. Wetlands 13:299–303CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Kery M, Hatfield JS (2003) Normality of raw data in general linear models: the most widespread myth in statistics. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 84:92–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kirby RE, Lewis SJ, Sexxon TN (1988) Fire in North American wetland ecosystems and fire wildlife relations: an annotated bibliography. Biological Report 88 US Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington DCGoogle Scholar
  22. Kozlowski TT, Ahlgren CE (eds) (1974) Fire and ecosystems. Academic Press Inc, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  23. Lay DW (1945) Muskrat investigations in Texas. Journal of Wildlife Management 9:56–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Legare M, Hill H, Farinetti R, Cole FT (1998) Marsh bird reponse during two prescribed fires at the St. Johns National Wildlife Refuge, Brevard County, Florida. In: Pruden TL, Brennan LA (eds) Fire in ecosystem management: shifting the paradigm from suppression to prescription. Proceedings of the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference No 20 Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, pp 114–126Google Scholar
  25. Littell RC, Milliken GA, Stroup WW, Wolfinger RD (1996) SAS system for mixed models. SAS Institute Inc, CaryGoogle Scholar
  26. Lynch JJ (1941) The place of burning in management of the Gulf Coast wildlife refuges. Journal of Wildlife Management 5:454–457CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. McAtee JW, Scifres CJ, Drawe DL (1979) Improvement of gulf cordgrass range with burning or shredding. Journal of Range Management 32:372–375CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. McWilliams SR, Sloat T, Toft CA, Hatch D (2007) Effects of prescribed fall burning on a wetland plant community, with implications for management of plants and herbivores. Western North American Naturalist 67:299–317Google Scholar
  29. Mendelssohn IA, Hester MW, Pahl JW (1996) Environmental effects and effectiveness of in situ burning in wetlands: considerations for oil-spill cleanup. Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office/Office of the Governor Louisiana Applied and Educational Oil Spill Research and Development Program, Baton Rouge, OSRADP Technical Report Series 95–010Google Scholar
  30. Miller DL, Smeins FE, Webb JW, Longnecker MT (1997) Regeneration of Scirpus americanus in a Texas coastal marsh following lesser snow goose herbivory. Wetlands 17:31–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Mitchell LR, Gabrey S, Marra PP, Erwin RM (2006) Impacts of marsh management on coastal-marsh bird habitats. In: Greenberg R, Maldonado J, Droege S, McDonald MV (eds) Terrestrial vertebrates of tidal marshes: evolution, ecology, and conservation, studies in avian biology no 32. Cooper Ornithological Society, Los Angeles, pp 155–175Google Scholar
  32. Mitsch WJ, Gosselink JG (2000) Wetlands, 3rd edn. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  33. Nyman JA, Chabreck RH (1995) Fire in coastal marshes: history and recent concerns. In: Cerulean SI, Engstrom RT (eds) Fire in wetlands: a management perspective. Proceedings of the tall timbers fire ecology conference no 19. Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, pp 134–141Google Scholar
  34. Pendleton EC, Stevenson JC (1983) Investigations of marsh losses at Blackwater Refuge. Horn Point Environmental Laboratories Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies University of Maryland Final Report, Cambridge, Reference No 83-154 HPELGoogle Scholar
  35. Perkins CJ (1968) Controlled burning in the management of muskrats and waterfowl in Louisiana coastal marshes. Proceedings of the Annual Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference 8:269–280Google Scholar
  36. Quinn GP, Keough MJ (2002) Experimental design and data analysis for biologists. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  37. Ross WM (1972) Methods of establishing natural and artificial stands of Scirpus olneyi. MS Thesis, Louisiana State UniversityGoogle Scholar
  38. SAS Institute Inc (2001) JMP statistics and graphics guide version 4. SAS Institute Inc, CaryGoogle Scholar
  39. Sokal RR, Rohlf JF (1995) Biometry: the principles and practices of statistics in biological research, 3rd edn. WH Freeman and Company, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  40. Stevenson JC, Rooth JE, Kearney MS, Sundberg KL (2000) The health and long term stability of natural and restored marshes in Chesapeake Bay. In: Weinstein MP, Kreeger DA (eds) Concepts and controversies in tidal marsh ecology. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston, pp 709–735Google Scholar
  41. Stevenson JC, Staver LW, Owens MS, Cornwell JC (2007) Reasons for sudden marsh dieback in 2006 on a dredged materials site at Shorter’s Wharf at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Proceedings of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex Annual Science Meeting No 4 Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Cambridge, pp 16Google Scholar
  42. Stoddard HL (1931) The bobwhite quail: its habits, preservation and increase. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  43. Taiz L, Zeiger E (2002) Plant physiology, 3rd edn. Sinauer Associates Inc, SunderlandGoogle Scholar
  44. Taylor KL, Grace JB, Guntenspergen GR, Foote AL (1994) The interactive effects of herbivory and fire on an oligohaline marsh Little Lake Louisiana USA. Wetlands 14:82–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. US Department of Agriculture (2001) Integrated Taxonomic Information System on-line database. Accessed 4 Feb 2003
  46. Vogl RJ (1974) Effects of fire on grasslands. In: Kozlowski TT, Ahlgren CE (eds) Fire and ecosystems. Academic, New York, pp 139–194Google Scholar

Copyright information

© US Government 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Conception Flores
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Dixie L. Bounds
    • 1
    • 3
  • Douglas E. Ruby
    • 4
  1. 1.U. S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, Maryland Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research UnitUniversity of Maryland Eastern ShorePrincess AnneUSA
  2. 2.Naval Facilities Engineering Command SouthwestSan DiegoUSA
  3. 3.U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oklahoma Ecological Services OfficeTulsaUSA
  4. 4.Department of Natural SciencesUniversity of Maryland Eastern ShorePrincess AnneUSA

Personalised recommendations