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03/17/2013

Prescribed Burns in Spring Improve Wild Turkey Habitat



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Anatomy of a Fire

Prescribed fires are safe, cool-burning and manageable fires that burn pine needles, branches, and dead vegetation on the ground, which can build to dangerous levels and lead to catastrophic wildfires. These low intensity fires also kill brush and small saplings without harming the larger trees.

Each year, state and federal land management agencies team up with nonprofit conservation groups, such as the NWTF, to fund prescribed burns.

Prescribed burning is a great way to keep large wildfires from happening. Managing our forests with cool-burning prescribed fires makes better wildlife habitat and keeps our neighbors safe. This is a great example of what can happen when conservation groups unite forces with state and federal agencies.

While prescribed fire is a forest management tool normally associated with winter, growing-season burns are becoming popular with forest and land managers in the Southeast.

Burning as undesirable brush and small saplings are sprouting and coming alive is good because it kills the entire plant including the roots rather than just burning the tops away. Burning in the spring also gives forest managers additional days to work, which increases the total acreage burned.

Land managers interested in using prescribed fire to improve wildlife habitat on their property or hunting lease should contact their county forestry extension office or state forestry agency.

EDGEFIELD, S.C. —Wildlife managers know the use of prescribed fire as a land management tool is an excellent way to improve wildlife habitat.

However, each spring wildlife biologists hear the fears of concerned hunters who don't understand that prescribed burns in March and April — months generally known as wild turkey nesting months — are far more beneficial than harmful to wild turkey populations.

"A common misconception is that prescribed burns during March and April are detrimental to wild turkey populations because they burn lots of wild turkey nests," said James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., the NWTF's chief conservation officer.

However, the NWTF's wildlife biologists have research showing the years of improved nesting and brood habitat created by a growing season prescribed fire is far more important to the turkey population than the loss of a few nests.

"Prescribed fire is a tool that historically was used only in winter months," said Kennamer. "However, research has shown that growing season burning during late March and April — when shrubs and saplings start to bud — can be much more effective at reducing brush and saplings and stimulating grass and forb growth than winter burning."

Prescribed fire is a land management tool that mimics a natural process. Introducing fire kills unwanted brush so natural grasses and plants that benefit wildlife are able to grow. Without prescribed fire, unwanted plants and trees will shade out beneficial plants on the forest floor and hazardous fuels will build up causing forests to become susceptible to devastating wildfires.

"While some nests are lost in spring burns, evidence shows that most hens will re-nest if they lose their first nest," said Kennamer. "Especially if the loss of the nest occurs early in the incubation cycle."

Research previously conducted separately on the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana and the Homochitto National Forest in Mississippi shows that hens prefer to nest in more open areas than the thick brushy areas forest managers are improving with fire. In fact, of 64 nests observed in Mississippi during the spring burning season, only four were located in areas scheduled to be burned and only two were actually destroyed by the fire.

Although the prescribed burns may destroy a few turkey nests, the lush new plant growth after the burn attracts a multitude of insects and provides food and shelter for growing turkey poults.

The benefits can last up to five years and will help improve local turkey populations. However, if prescribed burns were not used the result would be a loss in value of the habitat as it matures further and a gradual decrease of young poult survival, which in turn would cause a decline in the turkey population.

Biologists also point toward evidence that spring is the historical time for cleansing fires in nature. Before humans interfered, spring lightning storms ignited fires that eliminated brush and opened forests up to new growth. This prevented devastating fires that can destroy forests and enhanced habitat for wildlife. Today's prescribed fire regimen simulates nature's original forest health plan.

"Turkeys, like many animals in the Southeast, have adapted to the natural cycles of fire that periodically renewed the forest," Kennamer said. "This has been happening for centuries. We are restoring an important component to an ecosystem that evolved around fire. It is common to see turkeys feeding on exposed acorns and insects within hours after a prescribed burn, even with brush and grass still smoldering around them."

A Plan to Help

"Our volunteers really believe in keeping the forests healthy," said Kennamer. "They know that in order for their kids and grandchildren to enjoy what we have now, they have to help manage our forests."

As the NWTF continues to work with state and federal agencies, forests will become healthier, turkey populations will continue to increase and the trend of devastating wildfires will decline.

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