Understanding controlled burning

Controlled burning is going to be a big part of the new wild turkey management plan to be instituted this year. When speaking of this habitat–enhancement tool, remember that the dominant word here is “controlled.”

Smokey the Bear notwithstanding, there are times when burning off a section of forest or woodland is a good idea. But before you go setting a match to a patch of woods, let’s investigate just what controlled burning involves.

Any tract of forest or field that you expect to have wildlife living in it has to have adequate food, water, escape cover and brood habitat to sustain the species. Since man destroys wildlife habitat across the country at the rate of more than a thousand acres per day in the name of “progress,” the wildlife habitat that remains must be managed by man to produce optimum food and cover requirements.

So a few decades ago research proved that controlled burning was a very viable way to do this.

I’d often heard of such burning but didn’t know much about it until I had the opportunity some years ago to talk to a wildlife biologist and to accompany him into the woods as they did a controlled burn. This actually took place in West Virginia while I was there to hunt spring gobblers and met the biologist, Curtis Taylor.

We toured a few areas where controlled burning had been done in an effort to improve the brood range for wild turkeys. In this particular forested area, five sites of 10 aces each were seleted for burning. A preburn vegetative census was done on the forest floor to see exactly what type of herbaceous plants were there.

For three years after a site is burned, periodic checks are taken on the burn site. An annual count or censes of the amounts and kinds of grasses and plants growing on the forest floor is taken. Results are compared with the preborn vegetative figures to see if the burn really did improve the amount and quality of plants.

The census reveals exactly what percentage of the plant life is woods or viney or herbaceous etc. What affect the fire had on the oak and hickory trees in the burn area is also evaluated carefully.

In a controlled burn the size of the burn area is predetermined. The area is then burned off in strips of a certain width rather than just torching it off and letting the whole plot burn at once. This controls the temperature of the fire, because intense heat that would scorch and kill trees is not wanted.

The momentum of the fire is carefully controlled as well. In short, a controlled burn controls not just the size of an area to be burned but the temperature and momentum — all of which helps to bring about the desired result — improved wildlife habitat.

The sites that Taylor showed me had been burned to improve brood habitat. We stood on the boundary which separated an area that had been burned from an area which had not been burned. It was obvious, even to my untrained eye, that the burned area definitely had an abundance of green plants springing up whereas the unburned side did not.

Taylor stooped down and scraped away the leaf litter in spots and showed me the growth of various grasses and plants such as panic grass which produces a seed head that turkeys like and cinque foil, a favorite of both grouse and turkeys.

I remember Jerry Hassinger, a one-time Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist, saying to me that “nobody cries when a tree dies because it doesn’t have big, brown eyes.”

What I have described was controlled burning in its infancy. Many years have passed since then and I am sure the methods used today are far superior to those used initially. The fact is that controlled burning has proved to be an excellent tool for improving wildlife habitat when implemented correctly.

Research, planting, burning, censuring and many other tools that are carried out by foresters and biologists are valuable contributions but thankless ones. Who actually ever sees this sort of thing being carried out?

We all love to hear about trapping and tagging black bears and turkeys and transporting them to different areas and restoring bald eagles.That work is glamorous and exciting. Who doesn’t want to help out on an elk census?

But without boring, ongoing habitat improvement projects of various kinds no wildlife will exist. Good game management plans are essential and habitat work is the bottom line of success for hunters and wildlife fanciers of all stripes.

I believe Curtis Taylor is retired now but he has a great Facebook page. Look him up.