Alderville’s Cheyenne Blaker examines a garter snake this past summer during a snake monitoring session at her community’s Black Oak Savannah project.

Alderville’s Cheyenne Blaker examines a garter snake this past summer during a snake monitoring session at her community’s Black Oak Savannah project.

By Rick Garrick

Alderville’s Cheyenne Blaker has been fighting invasive species with fire to restore the tallgrass prairie environment at her Williams Treaty community’s Black Oak Savannah project.

“In this area there are no natural tallgrasses — the natives in this area used to do prescribed burns to make a tallgrass (environment) because it was a better hunting habitat,” says the 23-year-old field technician assistant at Black Oak Savannah this past summer and second-year eco system management student at Fleming College. “We’re just trying to keep that tradition/culture alive. They would do the burn in the springtime to get all the dead grass and the sumac and other natural successive species that are trying to (establish themselves). The tallgrasses’ roots go two times as deep as they are tall, so the mass above the ground does die (during the fire), but the roots are still alive and they will come up later in the season. They need fire to survive.”

Blaker says Black Oak Savannah habitat has grown in size from about six acres to about 150 acres over the past decade, with the tallgrass prairie accounting for about two-thirds of the acreage.

“We do prescribed burns when needed, which is usually every two-to-three years,” Blaker says, noting about two acres were burned last summer. “We usually rake up the dead grass from the year before and take a lighter to it. Of course, we have water packs on in case the fire gets a little out of control.”

Blaker says the black remnants after the fire attracts heat from the sun, which encourages the tallgrasses to regrow.

“The sun-loving plants will thrive, while the shade-loving plants will die off,” Blaker says. “That’s how you maintain a tallgrass prairie.”

Blaker says the community recently acquired an additional 10 acres of agricultural land that will eventually be restored into a tallgrass environment over five years.

“The younger generation tells me they like having a place to hike, to see the nature,” Blaker says. “We even have the nordic pole walking group that comes out weekly to use it and we have snowshoes now, so people can come in and rent snowshoes for the day.”

Blaker says the big bluestem species of tallgrass grows to about 10 feet tall by September.

“It’s beautiful, and the indiangrass can reach up to six-to-seven feet tall,” Blaker says. “You have to stick to the trails and you can’t see anything but grass.”

Blaker says the older sections of the Black Oak Savannah are in pristine condition but the newer areas are riddled with invasive species, such as spotted knapweed, dog strangling vine and buckthorn.

In addition to working on the tallgrass prairie this past summer, Blaker also monitored salamanders, snakes, invasive species and bird nest boxes, compiled floristic quality indexes on the neighbouring habitat and led tours and educational camps.

“We were looking at different plots of land, counting all the vegetation and the species diversity in that area,” Blaker says. “Doing that, we got an idea of how damaged or pristine that piece of land is.”

Blaker plans to study forestry next year; she has worked full-time and as a summer student at Black Oak Savannah for most of the past six years.

“Eventually, way in the future I would like to go back to the Black Oak Savannah, but for now I would like to expand my knowledge,” Blaker says.