Controlled Burns Restore Habitat, Reduce Tick Numbers

By Mike Barcaskey for the Beaver County Times

While it’s an old tool of nature, controlled burns are more popular than ever with wildlife-management groups, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission is no exception.

This spring, the Game Commission will be conducting controlled burns to restore wildlife habitat and decrease the threat of wildfires on State Game Lands statewide.

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Wildlife agencies and organizations throughout the East increasingly are turning to controlled burning as a tool to help wildlife that needs young forest, from grouse and woodcock to Appalachian and New England cottontail rabbits.

Since 2009, the Commission has used controlled burns as a habitat-management tool. In 2016, 8,637 acres of State Game Lands were treated with controlled burns during the spring season. An additional 1,933 acres were burned in the fall season for a total of 10,570 acres in 2016. This was up from 6,672 acres burned in 2015.

“No other single management practice gives us such a broad range of habitat benefits,” explained Ben Jones, habitat division chief of the agency’s Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management. “Those benefits include soil enrichment, invasive-plant reduction, mast-yield increases and wildfire-threat reduction.”

Controlled burns in spring improve turkey habitat, especially for young broods. After a controlled burn, succulent regrowth provides poults with cover and protein-rich bugs. These benefits often last more than five years. Increased moisture usually suspends the spring fire season by late May. And since most nests don’t hatch until June, it’s unlikely that young birds would be harmed. The timing of these burns is critical.

Controlled burns are also great news for deer and deer hunters who hunt on State Game Lands. The regeneration of tree species after a burn can result in a 400 percent increase in available food for deer, maximizing the habitat’s ability to provide for more whitetails.

The key to having more deer is providing better deer habitat, and the Commission’s prescribed burn program is one of the most effective means for improving deer habitat on Game Lands. The majority of today’s forests are 80 to 125 years old and lack a substantial component of young forest that provide deer and other wildlife with abundant browse, forage and cover.

Providing abundant browse for deer is just one benefit. Prescribed fire also promotes tree species beneficial to deer and other wildlife.

“Prescribed fire helps promote trees such as oaks,” Jones said. “Young oak seedlings are well adapted to fire, while other trees such as maple and birch are not.”

“In oak-dominated habitats, that’s important because if anything happens to the overstory trees, whether it’s a weather event or gypsy-moth defoliation, the seedlings on the forest floor will define the next forest, and we want to make sure oaks are a big part of that forest,” Jones said.

Studies also show controlled burns are an effective method of controlling tick populations. At Game Commission burn sites, the number of ticks declined by 88 percent after a burn, remained 75 percent lower that fall and still were 66 percent lower into the next spring.

Conducting safe and effective prescribed burns to improve wildlife habitat on State Game Lands and other tracts depends on optimal site and weather conditions. An anticipated burn window is established between time periods when optimum site and weather conditions could be present.

“We have been burning more and more each year,” said Travis Lau, Game Commission press secretary. “Getting done what you have planned is sort of a trick. It is largely weather dependent.”