Habitat & Conservation  |  11/27/2017

Managed Fire: Good for Wildlife Habitat


When carefully applied, a prescribed burn benefits game birds, and other wildlife, in many ways

In the universe of wildlife habitat practices, none are as valuable for so many purposes as prescribed burning. Woodlands, prairies and odd areas in farm landscapes are all habitats where carefully applied fire can radically alter vegetation in beneficial ways for wildlife.
We can hardly scratch the surface here, but for starters, fire improves the vigor and structure of native vegetation for nesting and brood rearing, removes dead plant litter and returns nutrients to soil, opens a forest understory to sunlight and wildlife friendly plants, decreases root competition and increases water filtration, and sets back invading woody cover in grasslands. This long list of pluses comes with a price — prescribed fire is a potentially dangerous habitat tool that requires careful application.
Fire is not your standard DIY habitat practice. Protection is the watchword. Its complexities are precisely the reason why highly trained fire professionals can make a living applying burns for clients. Detailed burn plans, firebreaks, attention to humidity and weather, notice to neighbors and agencies, and experienced manpower and proper equipment (like ATVs armed with water sprayers) are all key to safety for people and property.
Area burn associations, formed by neighbors sharing equipment and helping each other, are one way to address this. To be beneficial, prescribed fire has to be timed for the life cycles of the wildlife and vegetation you are managing both for and against. If not, your managed burn may be wasted or even counterproductive. In native grass stands, burning too early enhances the cool season vegetation you’d like to set back, while late spring fires can destroy nests and young broods. 

If you are managing against cool season grasses, it’s best to let them put on significant growth and then burn ahead of flowering. Late fall burns can mimic those of early spring, and don’t generally cause direct wildlife mortality. However, these burns can sharply reduce winter food and cover, thus impacting survival. And, there are other considerations like fire’s potential impacts on insect communities that contribute to brood rearing success, and pollination.

Spring burns are still what many associate with managed fire (that differs regionally). They’re often hot, spectacular affairs that can control cool season grasses if delayed until growth is well underway. Habitat managers are now burning throughout the annual cycle if conditions allow. A patchwork of burns thoughtfully applied during all seasons, interspersed with plenty of unburned areas, offers more habitat manipulation options and creates better wildlife habitat. And, rotating fire into non-traditional seasons eliminates the time crunch for burns if spring weather isn’t cooperating.

Summer and fall burns often have different impacts on the plant community than those conducted in winter and spring. Summer burns (with last year's dead fuel helping carry fire) are smoky and relaxed, as green grasses and forbs help slow the fire and prevent escapes. Summer and fall burns are among the most beneficial in promoting wildflowers. 

Growing season burns are also very effective against brush invasion into grasslands, though dormant season fires are better to reduce cedar encroachment. A deciduous timber understory, released by a little thinning and applied fire during late fall or early winter, results in an entirely different habitat the next spring, filled with succulent herbs and new shrubby growth attractive to forest wildlife.

Fire is a complicated habitat management tool. Used with care, it has a tremendous upside for wildlife. If you are considering an upcoming burn, now is the time to begin your research, talk with neighbors, and line up equipment and manpower so when the conditions are right, you are ready to roll.