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Prescribed fire is a longtime tool for wildlife management
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Although it may sound contradictory, burning the landscape actually improves habitat quality for many of Mississippi’s wildlife species.
I’m often asked, “How can destroying the habitat with fire help wildlife?” Another common question is, “Where will the wildlife go if you’re burning down their homes?”
These are good questions, and once you understand how fire influences vegetation, it will make sense. Many of the South’s wildlife species relish the flush of new vegetation that grows on the forest floor after a fire. What’s more, many wildlife species depend on fire to create the habitat they need.
So how does this work? Remember the old saying that the only constant is change? This concept certainly applies to wildlife habitat.
Vegetation grows and changes over time. Just think of an old field that was taken out of production or a pasture that is no longer grazed. Given sufficient time, the field and pasture will become forest. Biologists call the process plant succession, and wildlife managers use tools like prescribed fire to manage plant succession for the wildlife species of interest. Fire also acts as a catalyst to return many nutrients to the soil by removing vegetation and litter.
So fire does not destroy habitat. It either creates or restores habitat. And there’s no better example than using prescribed fire for management of bobwhite quail habitat.
An adult bobwhite stands about 6 or 7 inches tall. Its whole world exists in a shallow area barely a foot off the ground. All the grasses and broadleaf plants that provide food and nesting material are close to the ground. Vegetation that stands taller, like a plum or sumac thicket, will provide cover from aerial predators, but most woody vegetation over a few feet tall does not benefit a bobwhite.
If left undisturbed, this taller, woody vegetation will grow and begin to shade out the grasses and broadleaf plants that are critical for bobwhite survival. But a wildlife manager can use prescribed fire to start the plant succession cycle over and renew the habitat needed by bobwhites.
Deer, wild turkey, rabbits and songbirds reap many of the same benefits from fire that bobwhites do. For turkeys, it’s best to burn before April to avoid nesting season. However, how often you burn depends on the desired turkey habitat. Fire creates and maintains forest openings in quality brood-rearing habitat one to two years after burning and provides great nesting cover three to four years after burning.
Burning every three to five years increases white-tailed deer forage production and quality. It also maintains forage close to the ground, well within a deer’s reach. Good fawning cover is also produced three to five years after a burn. Burning top-kills hardwood brush and promotes sprouting of plant species that deer browse. Winter burns are normally best for deer management.
While burning is often conducted in late winter, burning in other seasons may accomplish specific habitat management objectives. To ensure a large variety of plant types on a piece of land, divide the burnable acreage into three or four sections and burn one section each year. Having burned and unburned areas next to one another guarantees that food and cover are always available and in close proximity.
Prescribed burning is an important wildlife management tool in the Southeast. Many landowners are reluctant to use fire on their property, but if it’s done correctly, prescribed fire can be an effective, safe and affordable management tool.
A burning permit from the Mississippi Forestry Commission is required before landowners can carry out a prescribed burn, which must be for a recognized agricultural or forestry purpose. Forestry Commission dispatch center phone numbers for various regions of the state can be found at http://www.mfc.ms.gov/wildfire-report.php.
To learn more about prescribed fire for wildlife management please visit http://www.msucares.com.
Editor’s Note: Extension Outdoors is a column authored by several different experts in the Mississippi State University Extension Service.