Do You Have The Tick Tickles?

Do You Have The Tick Tickles?

Spring is Here! Prescribed Fire, Ticks, and How They Are Connected

Finally, spring is here! With temperatures warming and the snow melting, it also means it’s the beginning of prescribed fire season.  The window after snowmelt and before growing season is the ideal time of year to get out and run fire through your managed natural areas, to reduce invasive species and promote our native plants.  But these warmer temperatures also mean something else will be joining us outdoors, something much less welcome – ticks.  While prescribed fires and ticks may seem like separate topics, recent research has indicated that how we manage our natural areas and how frequently we encounter some species of ticks may be more closely linked than we’ve realized.

Prescribed fires may be something you’ve heard about before, and they’re a worthy management tool to bring up again now that we’re in spring burn season.  For many natural areas in the Midwest, prescribed fires are an integral part of the ecological flywheel and are a tool that’s been used for thousands of years to control unwanted plants and promote the growth of beneficial native plants.  Particularly in the ‘establishment and management’ spoke of the ecological flywheel, controlled fire can be one of the most powerful and effective tools to managed restored areas by promoting native plant vigor, as many of our beneficial native plants are adapted to (and benefit from!) fire whereas invasive species are not.  It is also a way to prepare the seedbed for many perennial grasses and other plants, as they require bare mineral soil for germination and fires release nutrients back into the soil.

Ticks are also something you’ve likely heard about before, as they are an unfortunate but natural part of the midwestern landscape.  There are three species commonly encountered here in Illinois and much of the Midwest: the black-legged (deer) tick, the American dog (wood) tick, and the lone-star tick, and all three species carry various pathogens.  They can also be found in a variety of natural landscapes, with the black-legged ticks and lone star ticks generally found amongst leaf litter in woodlands, and American dog ticks found along grassy edges of woodlands and grasslands.  

So, what do these two aspects of spring have to do with one-another?  More than you may think, and it all has to do with the habitat requirements of ticks.  Ticks depend on the right type of ‘micro-climate,’ the atmospheric conditions immediately around the animal that may be different from the overall landscape.  In particular, many ticks are susceptible to desiccation if they are in too dry of an environment, and so they need a micro-climate that protects from wind, has higher temperatures, and holds moisture.  As it turns out, this is the exact type of micro-climate that many unburned environments provide, as the soil is covered by leaf litter and the understory is sheltered by invasive species like Eurasian honeysuckle and buckthorn.

Recent research may indicate that frequent prescribed fires can reduce the likelihood of tick encounters, and therefore reduce the risk of contracting tick-borne diseases.  Prescribed fires can reduce the invasive plant species that provide a conducive micro-climate for ticks, as well as reducing leaf litter where ticks find cover.  This opens the habitat to lower temperatures and less moisture.  Prescribed fires can also reduce ticks by direct mortality, as most ticks are slow moving and can’t actively escape an area being burned.  In addition, most prescribed fires take place over larger areas, extending the time needed for ticks to recolonize those burned sites when compared to smaller burned areas.  All of this is beginning to point to frequent prescribed fires being an effective tool in reducing tick abundance.

While it’s too early to know all the details of how prescribed fires can reduce tick abundance, the many other benefits of fire as a management tool are well-known.  If you are a municipality, park district, or land manager, sign up for a free consultation below and we can discuss how you can utilize this age-old management practice to as part of your land management program, and how you can fill the gaps left by invasives with more beneficial native plants (and hey, if it also helps reduce tick abundance, that’s a pretty sweet tool!).

Andres Ortega

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