Last week the Lawrence Journal-World ran a misleading Associated Press story on range burning by Roxana Hegeman that unnecessarily disparaged Kansas ranchers. The story was headlined “Kansas ranchers burn land despite plea from health officials” but the Kansas Livestock Association disputes that claim.  

According to Kansas Livestock Association Vice President of Legal and Governmental Affairs Aaron M. Popelka, the AP didn’t talk to any ranchers who use prescribed burns.

“We had … part of the story and it just seemed like nobody was interested in visiting with our folks who are actually engaged in this,” he said.

But not speaking with ranchers who practice safe range burning didn’t stop Hegeman from taking a broad swipe at them.

“Kansas ranchers eager to prepare their land for cattle grazing have mostly brushed off the plea from state health officials to voluntarily cut back this spring’s prairie burning to reduce air pollution during the coronavirus pandemic,” Hegeman wrote.

In fact, the one rancher quoted by AP does not do yearly burns, but follows a different management technique. 

The Associated Press and Hegeman said the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on March 26 encouraged landowners to reduce burned acres this spring in an effort to mitigate COVID-related respiratory concerns connected to breathing the smoke and to avoid overwhelming the state’s medical facilities.

But they failed to put those concerns in context.  First, in March the state was expecting a wave of COVID-19 cases that would overwhelm the medical system — a wave that never happened — in fact, Kansas has trended 70 percent lower than the national average, even as Governor Laura Kelly has extended the state shutdown order.

Far from overwhelming the Kansas health care system, the “suggestion” to postpone elective surgery and other procedures by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid services  — which pays for many of those procedures — has largely been followed by state hospitals, leading to layoffs and pay cuts at hospitals like Stormont Vail and St. Francis in Topeka.

The AP also reached out to the Kansas Sierra Club, which has a history of opposition to prescribed burning in the Flint Hills. 

More to the point, Popelka said, many ranchers did, in fact, voluntarily offer to reduce the amount of annual burning they do, contrary to what the AP story suggests.

“We actually had some producers reach out to us and say ‘Hey, we’re going to voluntarily reduce the number of acres we (burn). We do understand what’s going on,” Popelka said in a phone interview April 20.

Popelka said the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has not issued a  burn ban, and the AP story acknowledges this, noting that KDHE secretary Dr. Lee Norman was not inclined to recommend an outright ban, because pollution levels are not consistently above EPA thresholds.

Norman even acknowledged the expected glut of COVID-19 cases was not an issue.

“I think that would be considered if we had continued high numbers of coronavirus cases and influx into hospitals and that kind of thing,” Norman told the AP. “But we actually are not seeing an unusual amount of clinical activity now in those facilities.”

Popelka said his organization has no problem with the KDHE’s guidance.

“So far we’ve been pretty pleased with (KDHE),” Popelka said. “Secretary Norman, in fact, in that article mentioned that they weren’t looking at a ban, because COVID-19 cases aren’t as bad as they expected.”

What Hegeman and the AP are referencing in regards to pollution, are a few days where air quality has temporarily exceeded the eight-hour standard for ozone and fine particulate matter. However, according to Popelka, that was not a violation.

“Just because we exceeded that doesn’t mean we have a violation because these are based off your average,” he said. Popelka said there is currently a voluntary smoke management plan in place, with which most producers comply and which has performed well.

It’s an economic issue as well, at a time when beef prices are collapsing.

Next month, cattle trucks will pull up to isolated loading gates and unload thousands of steers which have wintered over in Texas and Mexico to be fattened before heading to slaughter. The cattle will spend 90 days on the last remaining tall-grass prairie in the world, where they will gain as much as 2.5 pounds a day.

Popelka said asking ranchers not to burn is like asking farmers not to apply fertilizer.

“It’s a big hit,” he said. “It’s a bottom line that’s already under stress from the market damage the COVID-19 pandemic has already done.”

Popelka said prices have dropped roughly 25 percent in a matter of months.

Unique Ecosystem

Most of the prescribed prairie fires in the state happen in the tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills in Eastern Kansas. Only about four percent of the once wide-ranging tallgrass prairie remains, and 80 percent of it is in Kansas.

In order for the waist-high bluestem grass to grow, each year in April the ranchers must burn the prairie. This helps to eliminate invasive species like the Eastern Red Cedar and other, shorter grasses that now hold sway in the western part of the state. It also burns off the dead grass from the year before. This yearly burn is not only natural; it is required in order to maintain the highly fragile ecosystem of the tallgrass prairie.

According to Popelka, there have been studies by Kansas State University showing that if ranchers go two years between burns there will be an explosion of invasive, woody species like Eastern Red Cedar and Black Locust Hedge.

“There’s a reason to do it in April,” he said. “That’s when the deciduous trees are starting to put out leaves and running a fire through burns back those little saplings and kills them off. You do it too soon the leaves aren’t out, you do it too late they’ll already be established.”

K-State has been working with ranchers for years on managing the prescribed burns and the smoke they give off, but the university’s Carol Baldwin, a K-State Research and Extension associate in the College of Agriculture, states in a 2018 article on the university’s website, the burns are required.

“We need fire,” said Baldwin, who is an expert in grassland range management. “If we take fire and grazing out of the ecosystem, we will not have prairies as we know them. We will end up with a scrubby woodland.”

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