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UD students learn about prescribed burning for wildlife management

Students in Jeff Buler’s Wildlife Habitat Management class got to see techniques they’re learning about in class in action when they travelled to the Cedar Swamp Wildlife Management Area near Smyrna to see a prescribed burn led by former University of Delaware students who now work for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources (DNREC) Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Buler, associate professor of wildlife ecology in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said that this is the sixth year he’s conducted the trip for his class and that the 42 students who went got to learn how prescribed burning is used to manage grassland habitats where technicians intentionally burn grassland fields to set back succession—the process by which a grassland becomes a forest—and keep woody plants from encroaching.

UD students learn from UD alums, current DNREC employees about prescribed burning for wildlife management“It also helps to enhance the growth of those early successional plants,” said Buler. “One of the challenges they have is that the grasses are growing at too high a density so they are also using that burn to help reduce the density of the grass. If they get too dense they aren’t providing as good a habitat for wildlife.”

Prescribed burns are a lot more prevalent in other parts of the country, such as out in the Midwest where grasslands are the dominant habitat type, so it was a great opportunity for the students to see the management technique first hand.

“On the prescribed fire trip, they get to actually see one of these management techniques in action,” said Buler. “What’s nice is that the technicians show them all the equipment, they talk about the process of getting permits to be able to burn, to get the permission to burn, and all the planning that goes into it. Then of course we go out and see the burn. For many of them, it’s the first time that they’ve witnessed a prescribed burn.”

The annual field trip is one of the most popular in Buler’s class because the students not only get to see a wildlife habitat management technique but they also get to interact with wildlife biologists and industry professionals, and in this case, they get to speak with professionals who also have experience with UD.

UD students learn from UD alums, current DNREC employees about prescribed burning for wildlife management“What’s nice is that it’s kind of two-fold. It’s part professional development but it’s also educating them about wildlife first hand in the field,” said Buler. “What I like about this trip in particular is that not only are the students meeting other professionals but many of them were students that came through this department. It reinforces that you can get a job. It might be that they take advice from these former students to heart more if they’re hearing advice from professionals they connect with.”

Buler said that two alums in particular, Eric Ludwig, New Castle County Regional Manager for DNREC, and Craig Rhoads, Environmental Program Manager for DNREC, have hired past students that took the course when they were at UD.

In addition to visiting the Cedar Swamp Wildlife Management Area, Buler’s class has travelled to areas to view other wildlife habitats as well, such as the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Pennsylvania and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Kathy Atkinson and Evan Krape