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Vital coast prairies in growing jeopardy

ACCELERATING DECLINE In the sample shown above, the grassland prairie shrank 38 percent in 64 years from 1941 to 2005, and 52 percent in 11 years from 2005 to 2016. Overall, this area has dwindled 70 percent over 75 years. The rate of loss is faster now because the increased edge effect of encroachment is closing in on the remaining open space in many areas. Image courtesy Bureau of Land Management

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

MCKINLEYVILLE — The North Coast’s ecologically essential grasslands are continuing to shrink at a rapid rate that requires a new fire management strategy, scientists say.

In the 64 years between 1941 and 2005 coastal grasslands shrank by 32-40 percent, a loss of some 1,630 acres, according to the Arcata field office of the Bureau of Land Management.

Most coastal grasslands have continued to shrink in area since 2005, with an estimated reduction of 50 percent as of today.One area of the King Range Wilderness has shrunk an extraordinary 70 percent in the past 75 years and the contraction is accelerating.

Scientists say the gremlin is California’s 100-year history of total fire suppression.

What would help are carefully controlled, low-intensity burns. They would eliminate vast quantities of forest floor duff and detritus that fuel catastrophic wildfires, while at the same time clear out the woody shrubs and encroaching trees that hamper and obstruct the growth of perennial bunchgrasses.

Thriving perennials are crucial to the North Coast’s healthy prairies and their wildlife ecology, says veteran botanist and range conservationist Jennifer Wheeler of the Bureau of Land Management’s Arcata office. In the last five years, she says, the bureau has reclaimed approximately 330 acres of grassland that were lost to recent woody vegetation encroachment.

Those 330 acres are only a fraction, however, of the some 7,000 acres of North Coast grasslands managed by the bureau.

They are declining, Wheeler said in an interview, owing to the lack…

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