As a wildlife biologist one of the main questions I get is: What is the most important rule in managing for wildlife -- any wildlife, deer, turkey, or quail?

My answer:

  • First, habitat management.
  • Second, population control.
  • Third, supplemental feeding by food plots.

Often, they then ask about the most important part of habitat management. I like to respond caveman-style, “FIRE GOOD!”

Fire has always been a natural part of our ecosystem. The earliest known Native Americans burned the land as they moved around to create fresh grazing and new browse for wildlife.

For decades, foresters and land managers used prescribed burns to control woody trash buildup (leaves, sticks, grass), stimulate growth of desirable woody species, and control both undesirable woody species and disease.

“Prescribed burns” are controlled fires using tools such as trained personnel, equipment, fire lanes, wind, moisture, backfires and common sense. Unfortunately, in the last 20 years, or so, prescribed burns have stopped due to liability issues, housing expansion into rural areas and lack of knowledge of the benefits of prescribed fires.

A good example are wildfires out West that have been burning on and off for thousands of years. These fires were started by lighting strikes or Native Americans and helped control underbrush and burned off excess dead woody fuel. As the population expanded into the rural areas, these natural fires and prescribed fires were stopped. Over the years, the understory and woody trash built up and, combined with drought years, created an explosive landscape. All of the sudden million-dollar houses and lives are lost and people question how it could happen.

Most burning occurs mid-February to mid-March, depending on weather. I like to be through burning by the start of turkey season. Too early of a burn will reduce late-season browse and forbs for deer when little else is available until spring green-up. The cool air temperatures and low winds allow for a slower control burn that causes little damage to timber.

Later burns around spring green-up will help control woody understory such as sweet gum and other undesirable species.

Different types of forest can be prescribe-burned in different ways. Pine forests over 15 years of age are the easiest to burn due to their uniform age and natural ability to tolerate fire at low- to mid-intensity heat with low fuel moisture present. Mature pines can withstand mid-heat to occasional high heat that will help control unwanted hardwoods.

Mixed pine hardwoods can be prescribe-burned at low heat or slow burn when low wind and mid-range fuel moisture are present. Hardwoods are normally not prescribe-burned but thinned instead.

If burning is necessary to stimulate browse and forbs production, it must be done under very low wind conditions and as slowly as possible with moderate fuel moisture present -- or, a few days after a rain. With too much fuel moisture, fire will not move; with no moisture, fire will move too fast and hot.

If desirable hardwoods are present in timber stands, I like to burn at night when little wind is present and cooler temperatures are present. Night burning allows you to see hot spots better and slow down the burn.

In areas such as the Delta or pastures, where there is not a lot of timber to burn or undesirable hardwoods present, you can burn along fence or turn rows and ditches. Sometimes these area types are the only habitat available for wildlife such as deer and quail and the only way to manage them is by burning.

Some areas may have several small thickets scattered around that will benefit from burning. Burning these areas on a three-year rotation will keep the browse, forbs and seed producers under the 3-foot range, which allows wildlife to reach them and keep them young and tasty. Areas that cannot be burned due to liability reasons or other reasons can be clipped to stimulate new growth and control unwanted woody species.

Note: The clipping method will be covered in more depth in a future article.

Wildlife benefits

Prescribed burns benefit wildlife by keeping the browse under the 3-foot range, which allows wildlife such as deer to reach it. Burning also stimulates new growth and keeps that growth young, tender and palatable.

Burning is essential to quail and turkey production by opening up the understory and encouraging plant growth for both seed production and bugging areas. The year following a burn you will notice a definite increase in wildlife utilization. Quail and turkey will be using the burn areas within a few days.

I have seen turkeys move into burn areas while they are still smoking, looking for insects, lizards and small mammals that did not escape the fire. Whitetail deer will migrate to the area for the fresh young browse and new forbs created.

Fire also scarifies seeds such as partridge pea, honeysuckle, ragweed and other forbs that have lain under the soil for hundreds of years into production. Fire helps open up the tree canopy to allow sunlight to penetrate the ground for plant production.

Site preparation is essential for a proper controlled burn. Fire lanes must be constructed between different forest types or different age types to restrict fire. These fire lanes also allow you to burn different areas in different years. Usually three-year rotations are the norm -- in other words you will burn the same area every three years.

Fire lanes need to be 12 to 20 feet in width, kept clean and planted in cereal grains if possible. Care should be taken when constructing fire lanes on hills to avoid erosion.

Prior to the burn date consult your local forestry agency for any local laws or permits needed and to seek advice they can provide. Make sure you have the proper equipment and personnel to handle the fire and only burn the amount of land you can safely handle.

After the burn is complete, make sure all fire is extinguished along fire lanes. I like to do this at night when very small fires are visible. A 25-gallon sprayer on the back of a 4-wheeler is the best tool to shut down these hotspots.

Prescribed fire is the best tool available for wildlife management and helps grow a healthy forest. Be safe and let your local fire department know when your burn will be taking place.

Payne is the owner/operator of Oakhaven Forages (www.oakhavenforages.com/), based outside Senatobia, Miss. Contact Payne at steve@oakhavenforages.com.