Bird’s team recently published a study on “fire stick farming,” a traditional method of ecosystem management still used by aborigines in Australia’s Western Desert. By burning wooded areas, lizards are driven towards hunters; cookpot-friendly kangaroos and emus fatten themselves on grasses flourishing on newly cleared lands.
The thing is that (1) Martu don’t use fire to drive game, and (2) Murtu don’t burn woodland — only spinifex grassland. That’s really what drives the process. Spinifex may be bullet-proof. It may puncture the tires on your Land Rover. It may eat other plant species for breakfast. But, boy, does it burn! By burning spinifex, Martu hunters open the grasslands up for colonization by early successional species that couldn’t otherwise compete. From a hunter’s perspective, burning increases access to goanna burrows and therefore increases foraging returns.
Science reporting is hard. You have to turn around comprehensible — and compelling — stories on tight deadlines. It’s nonetheless a shame that this piece gets such a fundamental piece of the story wrong. One thing that is very nice, however, is that there is a link to the actual paper.