For many years, the forests of much of North America were maintained in park-like settings. Large towering trees dotted a young, lush forest floor. There were not timber or wildlife managers. Nature groomed itself to provide high quality forage and cover for its animals. The primary force behind that management was fire.
Fast forward to today and the term fire is often associated with something bad. From Smokey the Bear’s “only you can prevent forest fires” to houses consumed in Western wildfires, fire is not something that many want to see outside of the confines of their fireplace, fire pit or charcoal grill. But the fact is, fire, in a controlled or prescribed manner, can be one of the most effective and underutilized tools we have in wildlife and land management, particularly for deer.
When we think about fires burning in the woods, many of us may have flashes of extreme wildfires in the West. This is far from the case for fire in wildlife management. The goal of a prescribed fire is usually focused around burning off (leaf) litter and potentially killing or reducing some shrubs and woody browse to set back the succession. Deer prefer to have access to young, high nutritious forbs in the spring and summer, as well as nutritious woody browse for most of the year. Often these become undesirable or unfound, as the forest ages, canopies in the trees close, and leaf litter covers the ground stifling any new seeds to germinate.
A prescribed fire can be done in late winter to early spring, or during the growing season, like late summer or early fall. The timing is often based on the main focus of the burn. If you are looking to kill off vegetation, then burning during the growing season is best. If you want to top-kill and burn off leaf litter, then the late winter to early spring burn is in order. With both, the fire will often never reach more than waist height. A low fire will get the job done and produce food and cover for your deer and other wildlife.
(Jeremy Flinn photo)
It’s important to note that you do have to control your fire. This is often done with fire breaks. A fire break can range from a dirt road to a planted or disked lane to a large crop field. Anything that can impede the fires progression will be considered an adequate fire break.
One of the most important burning decisions to be made is weather conditions. It’s obvious that burning on a very windy day is not the brightest thing to do, but it still needs to be said. Humidity is a good thing to have during a burn; it will keep the fire under control and the fuel load from getting too hot.
Though fire might not be for every deer hunter or manager, it can be an extremely effective tool. Add to the fact you can do it sections at a time, on a five to seven year rotation, and a strategic burning program can bring you a great return with little investment.