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Controlled Burning for Wildlife

By Adam Pritchett, Wildlife Biologist

The most effective way to improve your property for wildlife is through habitat management. Habitat management is not defined by planting a few acres of cool season plots to hunt over during deer season. Habitat management is manipulating the habitat as necessary to provide all necessary elements wildlife require on a year round basis. One of the most important tools for managing the habitat on your property is controlled burning. By using controlled burns a property owner can maintain low growing herbaceous plant diversity and provide excellent habitat for a large array of wildlife species.
 
Controlled burning, commonly called prescribed burning, is the planned use of fire to achieve specific objectives. The timing, fire return interval, and fire intensity of these burns, play important roles in achieving a landowner’s objectives. The timing of the prescribed burn refers to what time of the year the burn takes place. Cool season burns are conducted during winter months while most plants are dormant. Cool season burns are used to reduce forest litter to help prevent forest fires. They are also used to stimulate growth of forbs, legumes and native grasses that are beneficial as food and cover for a variety of wildlife species. Growing season burns take place from early spring to late summer. A growing season burn is most often used to control the choking underbrush in a stand of mature trees.
 
These resemble the fires that occurred periodically across Alabama’s landscape during Pre-Colonial times in the context of seasonality. Since most fires were started by lightning strikes, they would occur during the growing season. Those fires maintained forests in an open park-like landscape that provided a vast understory layer of food and cover for deer, ground nesting birds, song birds and many reptiles. Understanding and using growing season burns on your property can help achieve this habitat type.
 
The interval a property is burned is also an important factor in using control burning to manage for wildlife. The fire return interval in Pre-Colonial times was generally less than five years. There are recorded accounts from Spanish, French and English explorers from the 1500s to 1700s of individual fires that burned across vast areas for over a year.
 
Generally a three-year rotation is used when managing for wildlife, but this can change depending upon the objectives of the landowners prescribed fire program. The first thing a property owner needs to consider is breaking the property into thirds or setting up a grid in which burned and unburned blocks are interspersed throughout the property. Ideally, no two adjacent blocks should be burned the same year – this arrangement creates a checker board effect across the property. By using a three-year rotation and block design, there will be recently burned blocks with a high quality layer of ground level vegetation; one-year post burn blocks that are excellent for ground nesting birds such as turkeys; and two-year post burn blocks that provide more suitable cover for species such as deer. Having this horizontal diversity increases the carrying capacity of the property for many wildlife species.
 
The intensity of a prescribed fire also plays an important role in reaching a landowners desired objectives. Weather conditions along with fuel loading and type, and method of ignition are important factors considered by the Prescribed Burn Manager when determining the desired intensity of the fire. A certified prescribed burn manager can tell you what weather conditions will produce the type of fire needed to meet a specific objective. High intensity fires or head fires will kill larger brush and tree saplings and reset the understory back to ground level. Low intensity fires or cool fires are most often used in young pine plantations and in areas that haven’t been burned in a long time. Regardless of the type of fire prescribed, it is imperative that good fire breaks are in place and enough manpower is present to handle any problems that might occur.
 
A common purpose of using controlled burns for wildlife is to rejuvenate understory plant communities (where sufficient sunlight is reaching the forest floor) which provide high quality browse and cover. Prescribed burning releases nutrients into the soil which stimulates the growth of high quality native grasses, forbs and legumes. Many different species of wildlife rely on this high quality browse and cover for survival. Unlike most supplemental wildlife plantings, controlled burning can provide year round cover and food for the wildlife on your property.
 
For more information on controlled burning for wildlife, contact the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Wildlife Section or your county forester.

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