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Prescribed Burns Are Helping Restore Crucial Bird Habitat in the Calumet Region

Audubon Great Lakes and partners use restorative fire to burn off invasive plants while spurring new growth at wetlands in Gary, Indiana

CHICAGO (May 20, 2021) – As part of a Great Lakes region-wide restoration effort to restore critical wetlands for birds and people, Audubon Great Lakes, the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission and partners recently completed the first ever prescribed burn at MLK wetlands in Gary, Indiana. The purpose of the controlled burn is to help maintain and improve wildlife habitat by replacing invasive plants with native plants that create optimal breeding habitat for threatened marsh birds such as American Bittern and Pied-billed Grebe.

“Fire is a natural ecological process used in the Great Lakes region and prescribed burning is an important land management tool for maintaining and restoring native plant communities and wildlife habitat, managing invasive species, and reducing wildfire danger,” said Servando Moreno, stewardship program associate at Audubon Great Lakes.  “Working with our partners, these restoration efforts will pave the way for native plants, marsh birds and other wildlife. Our hope is that when the marsh birds migrate to the Calumet region, they will find a healthier set of wetlands.”

The Little Calumet River wetlands, a 12-mile stretch of the Little Calumet River includes thousands of acres of wetlands that provide far-reaching benefits to marsh birds, other wildlife and people by storing and cleaning water.

In this region, where invasive plants like Common reed, also known as phragmites and hybrid cattail dominate many of the wetlands, prescribed burns are an important step in correcting the balance of the wetland ecosystem. As they take over, the weeds suffocate native species like bullrush and sedges, making conditions intolerable for marsh birds that include the Common Gallinule and Least Bittern—species that used to thrive in the Calumet region.

“This area has so much potential for birds and the community and working together we can restore these wetlands which are valuable for flood protection, water quality improvement and recreation,” said Dan Repay, Executive Director for the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission. “Together we’ve already restored over 250 acres of wetlands over the past two years – and our work is just beginning.”

Detailed planning and lots of patience for precise weather conditions are important and take place between the growing seasons. When a burn is done in the spring, it helps dormant seeds to germinate, and helps plants grow by activating the roots.

“Our goal with a prescribed burn is to remove some of the fuel and wildfire potential with some of the dead vegetation but the ultimate purpose is habitat improvement,” said Greg Walterstoff, Director of Natural Resources for V3 companies. “We really want to see the flora and fauna restored back to this area. Remove the invasive species and gain the benefit of burning on natural environment.”

“Without fire, the vegetation of wetlands would fill in, limiting the places for marsh birds like the American Coot to swim and the Sora rail to hunt,” added Moreno. “Fire resets the score, creating a more balanced wetland for all.” 

Since the 1980s, The Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission has worked to protect the people of Gary and surrounding communities from flooding events along the river. Now, in partnership with Audubon Great Lakes, Lake County Parks, The Wetlands Initiative, The Nature Conservancy and the City of Gary, the Commission is taking bold steps to restore and revitalize the river and its wetlands for the benefit of birds and to create new natural spaces for the people of Northwest Indiana.

For community members interested in learning more about the conservation work in the Little Calumet region, Audubon Great Lakes community engagement program, Wild Indigo Nature Explorations, will be hosting a series of Community Bird Walks along the West Branch of the Little Calumet River on June 5 at 10 a.m., June 11 at 2 p.m. and June 23 at 10 a.m. For more information or to join, email Jennifer Johnson, Wild Indigo Associate at Jennifer.johnson@audbon.org

About Audubon Great Lakes
Audubon Great Lakes is a regional office of Audubon, learn more at gl.audubon.org and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. Audubon works throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation. State programs, nature centers, chapters, and partners give Audubon an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire, and unite diverse communities in conservation action. A nonprofit conservation organization since 1905, Audubon believes in a world in which people and wildlife thrive.

TO REQUEST AN INTERVIEW: Nicole Minadeo, nicole.minadeo@audubon.org; 419-308-4846

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