Planting a patch of clover or turnips is a great way to draw deer out into the open during hunting season. However, if your goal is to actually manage your whitetail herd and not just hunt it, you need to include a variety of practices that benefit the habitat as well as the deer. Fire is one of the best tools you can use.
“Burning removes a large amount of dead growth that crowds out new plant growth,” explains Arkansas Forestry Commission regional forester Joe Friend. “It also removes the leaf litter on the forest floor and that allows seeds in the soil to germinate and sprout.”
Ironically, however, fire is one of the most feared and maligned natural and man-caused occurrences in nature. There’s no question it can be destructive. Uncontrolled fires in and around developed areas can cause extensive damage and can take human lives. However, in areas where there is little or no risk of property damage, foresters often rush to extinguish a fire before it spreads largely as a result of the negative public view of forest and brush fires. Too many people, including many hunters, simply don’t understand the good that comes from fire. That’s too bad. Just as a food plot can provide high-quality forage at certain times of the year, fire also creates a flush of new growth that benefits deer and a variety of other game and non-game wildlife.
That new plant growth is exactly why a prescribed burn is an excellent wildlife habitat management tool. However, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries district wildlife biologist Marc Puckett says burning works best in conjunction with some sort of timber management practice like thinning. By removing mature trees, you allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, explains Puckett, and burning then stimulates new plant growth. Together, they produce a huge amount of new growth at or near the forest floor where deer and other wildlife can reach it. Whitetails will devour the new shoots, sprouts and grasses that spring up from the forest floor and stumps.
“Many of our ecosystems are fire-dependant. Fire has been part of our landscape for thousands and thousands of years. Native Americans understood the benefits of fire and burned pretty regularly,” Puckett explains. “Some plants won’t grow unless they have been subjected to fire, and it’s well-established that fire is one of the best things that can happen to the habitat. Food plots can be beneficial, but they just won’t produce the wide variety of plant growth you’ll get in the months after a fire.”
Sometimes, it doesn’t even take months. When conducted in the early spring, a prescribed fire can produce an incredible amount of new plant life as soon as the growing season starts. Even late-summer fires can produce high-quality forage before the plants go dormant for the winter, although the full effect won’t be noticeable until the following spring. Puckett says there is no bad time to burn, although he typically recommends an early-spring or late-summer fire in order to protect any songbirds that might be nesting during the spring and summer. Generally, he prefers to burn in the early spring simply because it helps clear out ground clutter without doing long-term damage to “good” plants.
“Most small trees will come back just fine if you burn them when they are leafed out, but burning in the spring gives you that rapid growth — although you will get lots of new growth later in the summer as well. It’s pretty amazing how fast everything bounces back after a fire,” he says.
Not only will it create more deer food, but burning ultimately produces more and better nesting and brood-rearing habitat for quail, turkeys and other ground-nesting birds. Fire also replenishes vital nutrients in the soil. In other words, there’s no wrong reason to burn for the sake of your deer herd and the rest of the wildlife that lives on your land.
There are, however, some considerations you must take into account before you light a match. Fire is no longer a simple, carefree, one-size-fits-all solution to habitat management like it was 50 years ago when it was a common tool. That’s because the landscape has changed so much. What was once a series of large farms and vast tracts of timber has slowly evolved into a mosaic of development, smaller blocks of forest and divided farms interspersed with homes. Burning simply isn’t compatible with much of the landscape these days because the risk of property damage is too high.
That’s where an expert can help you decide if fire is a suitable tool for your situation. Some private foresters are trained to assess and conduct prescribed burns, and many state forestry employees have extensive training in prescribed fire management.
“If you aren’t sure what to do first, call your local forestry office. They can come out and provide an assessment, or they can put you in touch with an expert who can do as little as offer advice or as much as contract out the burn and manage it themselves,” Puckett says.
Friend says by hiring a consulting forester who has experience in fire, you can shift the burden of responsibility away from you if something should go wrong. In some states, it’s perfectly legal to drop a match on your own land and let it burn, but doing so will open you up to a variety of liability issues if the fire gets out of control.
“A professional forester who has undergone fire training will consider everything from the habitat itself to the landscape and the surrounding homes and buildings to the weather,” says Friend. “We use very strict criteria when we assess the safety of a prescribed burn. We consider temperature, humidity, wind, future weather and even barometric pressure. Many landowners just don’t know how those factors play into a controlled burn.”
Nor will they understand the relationship of the weather to the smoke produced by the fire. Smoke can be just as dangerous as the flames.
“Smoke needs to disperse or rise,” Friend says. “If it blows across a highway, for example, you are looking at a very serious safety issue, and we certainly don’t want the smoke settling on a town a couple miles away. In some cases, fire might not be the best solution for your management goals.”
On the other hand, it can be one of the best all-purpose tools for creating high-quality habitat for the deer and other critters that live on your land.