The Burning Question: Prescribed Burns Create Healthier Habitat and Deer

As we drove through the night, the orange glows of numerous prescribed burns dotted the Kansas landscape. We had just finished a day of shed hunting, and a pretty successful one at that. It’s not often you can cover so much ground knowing that the sheds from many giant whitetails are hidden so close by. Any hunter who has ever been to Kansas has to sometimes wonder why?

Why is this the land of giant bucks, when so much of it seems to be open pasture? Sure, there’s a lot of great cropland, but a large portion is grazed by cattle. But that’s just it. The management of the landscape and habitat for optimum cattle grazing, including the use of prescribed fire, creates high-quality native food for whitetails. Pair that with bucks that grow older because of lower hunter densities and a one buck bag limit, and it’s easy to see why Kansas produces dream bucks every year.

Prescribed burning is one great way to eliminate understory growth and leaf litter, and rejuvenate the soil.

Prescribed burning is one great way to eliminate understory growth and leaf litter, and rejuvenate the soil.

But many properties, in many states, have the potential to produce great bucks. Sure, there’s
a mixture of ingredients needed to produce a true giant, but with proper management, most properties have the means to produce bigger bucks.

Though we often focus on habitat management, this is so often limited to food plots and hinge cuts. Don’t get me wrong, each has a useful purpose in a complete deer management strategy, but one critical tool that’s too often ignored is fire.

During the 1700s and 1800s, fire was a great tool for setting back succession and clearing the land of unwanted debris in preparation for farming. But as human populations grew, and residential areas increased, the use of fire decreased dramatically. Unfortunately, in today’s society, a fire burning in nature instantly generates visions of rapidly spreading wild fires in the West. That’s not the fire we are discussing here, or what we want to promote.

Fire is good for deer because it creates lush, nutritious natural foods. From partridge pea to greenbriar, prescribed fire produces a lot of food in its wake. But not only that, it also gener- ates incredibly valuable cover.

A BETTER BANQUET
As fire moves across the landscape, the immediate result isn’t pretty — charred ground that leaves little if anything behind to eat. But looks can be deceiving, because although it appears that nothing will ever grow back, an explosion in the soil is just waiting to happen.

Prescribed burning can revitalize the soil nutrients, clear out underbrush and help with planting of food plots or let natural forage thrive.

Prescribed burning can revitalize the soil nutrients, clear out underbrush and help with planting of food plots or let natural forage thrive.

One of the greatest benefits of a prescribed fire is the removal of debris. Sunlight is unable to penetrate thick layers of leaf litter and grasses to reach dormant seeds in the soil. This seedbed contains potential deer food that is only able to germinate when exposed to sunlight. As the low and slow fire burns across the surface of the land, the soil becomes exposed to sunlight. A little warmth and moisture and the ground soon comes to life.

Most hunters fail to realize how much of a deer’s diet is made up of natural habitat, and during spring and summer a large portion consists of young forbs. What has the fire sparked? You guessed it; young, high-protein forbs, which, when consumed, will provide critical nutrients to a deer’s body — and a buck’s antlers. We often get wrapped up with seeing deer in crop fields, food plots or at feeders, but the reality is that deer are also eating while on their way to and from those food sources.

Native foods are reinvigorated by fire. As plants age, their nutritional quality decreases. Think about a young blackberry bush with lots of new growth tips. The plant in its young stage is producing high-quality nutrients, but as it ages, it not only decreases in nutritional quality, but can also become more difficult to digest.

As fire burns across the landscape during late winter or very early spring, many woody plants are “top-killed,” meaning that although the above- ground vegetation is removed, the root system remains very much alive. As growing conditions become more favorable, the root system sparks new growth above ground that has a much greater nutritional value and is easier to digest.

WATCH: Make Great Food Plots for Better Deer Hunting


HIGH-QUALITY DEER COVER

Now if you thought there was no food left behind after a prescribed burn, then you surely believe the cover is gone as well. This is true. A prescribed fire will drastically reduce the amount of good-quality deer cover. The lone exception might be through some younger pines. However, it’s about the aftermath of the burn that’s important.

When a prescribed fire goes through an area, the habitat is set back in succession, or stage of growth. Remember that a deer lives from 6 feet and down. Nothing above 6 feet, except for temporary mast, matters much — particularly in terms of cover. As new growth starts to form, the area a deer focuses on becomes thicker and more secure.

Think about it like this. As an oak or maple seedling grows, it provides decent deer cover and browse for about a five-year period. After that, the saplings begin to “self-thin” and any high-quality browse is out of a deer’s reach. At this point, its value to deer and other wildlife such as grouse and rabbits decreases rapidly.

Prescribed fire, along with cutting, will set back the successional age of the habitat, making it much more valuable to deer and other wild- life. This is particularly true when creating high-quality deer cover, or more specifically, deer bedding cover — the thicker the better. Even with stands of native warm-season grasses, prescribed fire can be used to generate healthier stands of grass.

PRESCRIBED FIRE FOR DEER HABITAT
Landowners have their own strategies when it comes to burning for wildlife. And they should, because there really is no blueprint to follow. Every property has a different land- scape layout, and each property owner has his own set of goals.

First, and likely most important, is safety. Burning is no joke. A fire can quickly get out of hand, and the last thing you want is a lawsuit for damaging someone else’s property. Contact local authorities — typically the fire department — and let them know where and when you will be burning. Make sure that conditions are favorable, which means no high winds or extremely dry conditions. Lastly, make sure you have a plan of what you want to burn. This seems obvious, but far too often people just let it burn without any goal in mind.

I recommend gridding out the property. Whether you have 40 or 400 acres, never burn the entire piece of ground to leave no food or cover. Determine manageable and economical sections, then burn them on a rotation. For instance on a 100-acre property 25 acres is not to be burned at all, so you have 75 acres remaining to burn. Split it into three equal blocks, and then burn one block each year or every other year. The staggering effect will create a mosaic of different-aged habitats on the property. Then, five to seven years after burning the first block, burn it again to set back the habitat into early growth. This strategy can be excellent for creating great habitat for white-tailed deer and other wildlife.

Many people don’t want to hear about fire in regard to their property, but wildfires and prescribed burning are not anywhere close to being the same. A sound deer management strategy should include prescribed fire. If conducted correctly, the habitat will be optimal for growing bigger bucks.

— Jeremy Flinn is a professional deer biologist living in Missouri. An avid bowhunter and Deer & Deer Hunting contributor, he has provided valuable information to hunters and landowners for more than a decade.

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