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U.S. Department of the Interior
U.S. Geological Survey
National Wetlands Research Center
700 Cajundome Blvd.
Lafayette, LA 70506

Contact: Gabrielle Boudreaux Bodin
Phone: 337-266-8655
Fax: 337-266-8541
For Release: February 9, 1999

Rekindling Hope for the Coastal Prairie: Using Fire Against the Invasive Tallow Tree

PrairieWildfire helped create the coastal prairie. Fire, intentionally set, is helping to preserve its remnants from unwanted invasive species like the Chinese tallow tree.

Jim Grace, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wetlands Research Center, is one of a handful of scientists studying the coastal prairie that once stretched from Louisiana to south central Texas, covering 9.4 million acres.

In little more than a century, the coastal prairie has largely disappeared. In the late 1800s, the railroad made its way to the coastal regions of Texas and Louisiana. People displaced the bison, antelope and red wolves. Agriculture replaced native plants such as grasses and colorful wildflowers.

"In Texas, 99 percent of the prairie is gone. In Louisiana, 99.99 percent has disappeared," said Grace, who works at the Center's headquarters in Lafayette, La.

Before the area became settled, fire was a sustaining force on the coastal prairie. Fires, set by lightning, fed on the grasses and kept trees in check. The roots and bulbs of the native prairie plants were unaffected by fire at the surface.

Chinese Tallow tree being burned"The prairie is adapted to fire," Grace explained. Grace and some of his colleagues were curious as to whether fire could be used to combat a modern threat to the coastal prairie, the Chinese tallow tree.

The tallow tree, or chicken tree as it is also called, is believed to have been introduced to North America in 1772 by Benjamin Franklin. The species, which reproduces abundantly, was sought after for the oils and waxes in its seeds and fruits.

Since the 1980s, tallow has become so prevalent that it has been recognized as one of the exotic plants of greatest threat to native habitat in the southern United States, according to Grace. Tallow resists both flooding and drought, and to some degree, fire. Since 1996, Grace and other researchers have conducted experiments at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge near Houston, Texas, to determine whether "prescribed fire," an intentional, controlled blaze, might be useful in regulating tallow. Fire was considered as an alternative to controlling tallow trees with chemicals.

"There were several reasons we were not optimistic," said Grace. "Tallow does not burn easily. The trees require a high temperature to burn and actually have an ability to suppress fire by shading out the native grasses." Under ordinary conditions, "a fire will go up to a stand of tallow, then simply go out," he said.

Former Chinese tallow forest that has been cleard by prescribed fireBeginning in 1996, researchers conducted "controlled burns" of prairie land in Brazoria during both the growing season and dormant season. At first, the results were not encouraging. "The tallow quickly resprouted and did not appear to be heavily damaged by the fire," Grace said.

But an examination of the trees at the end of the growing season in 1997 showed greater evidence of the fire's effects. "There was more damage than we initially thought."

The researchers have conducted additional burns and are still studying the impact and usefulness of fire in preserving what is left of the coastal prairie. "We have some evidence that burns (conducted) during the growing season are more effective than traditional dormant-season burns," said Grace.

"The remaining prairie contains a lot of important biodiversity that we don't want to lose, and we have already lost a lot of biological information," Grace explained. Although bison, antelope and wolves no longer roam the coastal prairie, Attwater's prairie chicken, a federally endangered bird, makes its home there. The coastal prairie also is the exclusive wintering ground of the federally endangered whooping crane. And a number of rare and valuable plant species remain there.

Tallow forest that has been pushed back by fireGrace said researchers are "more optimistic that we may be able to use fire to help protect and restore the coastal prairie. It appears that fire will hold the tallow at bay. It won't completely eradicate it, but we now know that we have some tools to work with."

As the nation's largest water, earth and biological science and civilian mapping agency, the USGS works in cooperation with more than 2,000 organizations across the country to provide reliable, impartial scientific information to resource managers, planners and other customers. This information is gathered in every state by USGS scientists to minimize the loss of life and property from natural disasters, to contribute to the conservation and the sound economic and physical development of the nation's natural resources and to enhance the quality of life by monitoring water, biological, energy and mineral resources.

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