An oak woodland restoration project in Nebraska’s Indian Cave State Park is looking good after nearly 10 years of chemical thinning and prescribed fire. The work, funded in part by the NWTF, is opening formerly dense stands of elms, ash, hackberry and ironwood and bringing sunlight to the ground.
Plants benefitting include the rare Turk’s cap lily and yellow lady’s slipper orchid. Lack of sunlight kept the lily from blooming. That changed in 2015. Nebraska Game and Park Commission Botanist Gerry Steinauer said “beautiful, orange blossoms” appeared for the first time since he began working in the park many years ago.
Another rare plant, the purple milkweed, needs partial sunlight to grow. It’s also responding well to increased sunlight. Removal of rough dogwood brush in tallgrass prairie openings is allowing new growth of classic prairie species, such as leadplant, purple prairie clover, butterfly milkweed and the rare Indian-plantain. Plus, sedge and grass seedlings, helpful in erosion prevention, are sprouting.
“Vegetation is much denser and taller in the park than prior to our management,” Steinauer said. “The greater plant diversity is providing seeds and insects for birds, including wild turkeys.”
Controlled burning there started eight years ago. It usually occurs in early November during archery season for deer. Up to 1,000 acres are burned at a time. Steinhauer said hunters accept the process, understanding the burning is needed to maintain quality habitat for game animals.
The habitat work also draws mushroom hunters. The burning and thinning removes downed timber, making walking easier. Morel mushrooms respond well to fire and sunlight, Steinauer said.
Steinauer wrote the NWTF Super Fund grants used in the thinning, and fire and weed control at Indian Cave.
“The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has been a big proponent of increased management of critical oak woodlands, greatly improving the available habitat for wild turkeys on their properties,” said Jared McJunkin, NWTF Northwest District conservation field supervisor.