Bucks in the Burns

After a fire, you can plan on several things. Some blackened landscape. Some ash. New green growth. And bucks! Now you can take advantage of what firefighters know about deer: Hunt the burns for bucks.

by Kelly Andersson

Many firefighters are also serious buck hunters. Those that have done both for a long time pay attention to where the fires are, and they often hunt in the fall where they were working in the summer - not because they became familiar with the area, but because they know deer will be hanging around after the fire.

Deer prefer foraging in burned areas partly because of the increase in plant nutrients that often occurs after fire. Fire will burn off the accumulated duff and litter that inhibits new growth of grasses; fire rejuvenates and improves forage, making for improvements to winter range. Burning in sagebrush areas can increase herbaceous plants by reducing the decadent sagebrush that crowds out more nutritious and palatable forage.

Joe Stutler, a firefighter from central Oregon, has been hunting bucks for about 40 years. "I first started working in fire in the late '60s," he said, "and I can't remember a fall hunt for deer or elk where the animals didn't wind up in the old burn areas. Fire makes a big difference for both the animals and the hunters - you're able to see them, and they have new forage and new growth in the burn area. It's a real advantage both for the critters and the hunters.

"In a general sense, wherever you improve the vegetative conditions, the bucks will be back in there."

One of the best advantages a hunter can have is knowledge of the hunt area, and that's even more the case when you scout the burns. In real estate it's "location, location, location"; in hunting it's "scouting, scouting, scouting." "If you've been hunting an area in the past," explains Stutler, "and you know the country, you'll also know the areas that experienced a burn the previous summer. It's a wise move to go back in there, because you already know the country. Anytime there's a burn, you have advantages: The country's more open, which is an advantage for the hunter. But a fire burns vegetation, which releases nutrients back into the soil, so you get this improved regrowth. The burns can become a key feeding area for many years to come."

To find the best burn areas for bucks, look for the best areas for feeding. Deer prefer feeding where they are close to good cover, and they have preferences for certain vegetative species, too. Bitterbrush and mountain mahogany are two key species to look for. Antelope bitterbrush is a highly preferred browse species. It takes a while to recover from fire; it grows slowly and is less dense after fire, and the plants that have seen fire are smaller than those that haven't. Shrubs and forbs are good browse for deer, and in pi-on-juniper areas browse increases for several years after a fire.

Deer, which are primarily browsers, feed on several hundred different plant species across their range. They eat the leaves, stems and shoots of woody plants most often during summer and fall; in spring they favor grasses and forbs. Preferred species to scout for include mountain mahogany, snowberry, buffaloberry, Ceanothus, rose, serviceberry, sagebrush, sumac, willow, Gambel's oak, ninebark, antelope bitterbrush, mariposa, juniper, manzanita, red huckleberry and dandelions.

Not all fires are the same. Lightning usually ignites wildfire in the West, and prescribed fires are ignited by firefighters. Fires that result in a mosaic pattern are the most beneficial for deer habitat. Stand-replacement fires - those that don't just scorch but actually kill off an entire stand of trees - are the least beneficial. The fires you want to look for are those that leave a mosaic pattern, with some burned areas and some unburned areas. The best thing to find is an area where old thick growth (trees and brush) has been burned out and good new browse is thriving and good escape routes, hiding cover and water are close by. Incinerated moonscapes from high-intensity fires often won't produce much - if anything - because the fire burned hot enough to sterilize the soil, prevent natural regeneration, and crust over the soil with a resin residue from the high-intensity burn. These are the sorts of "catastrophic" fires that fire managers have warned about for years - fires that burn so hot and so fast that they annihilate an area.

A low-intensity fire that burns close to the ground, though, can work wonders on deer habitat. It cleans up the forest floor, removes low branches, younger trees and brush and duff, and opens the stand without harming the fire-tolerant species. Finding a "fire-cleansed" area teeming with rich new growth, but that still has substantial cover and nearby good water, is like finding the Holy Grail of buck haunts.

Locating burned areas is a lot like locating bucks - it takes a little homework. A call to the local fire management officer can produce some valuable information. Check with local fire management teams or crews: the hotshots, rappellers, smokejumpers and engine crews nearly always will know the locations of fires past, present and, perhaps most important, future. If you describe the kind of fire you're looking for, they may tell you where to find it. Talk to the state forestry office in the area you plan to hunt and ask local wildlife biologists about any prescribed burns that include objectives for habitat improvement.

Bill Waterbury, assistant USDA Forest Service director for fire operations in the Southwest U.S., was for a long time with the fire staff on the Malheur National Forest in Oregon; He's also an avid deer hunter. "When hunting in burn areas, what we've found productive is to look for seeded fire lines. The containment lines dug around the perimeter of a fire are often seeded later with grass seed during the post-fire rehab. That fresh grass will usually produce a lot more animals around there. Another good thing to look for in a burned area are islands of unburned fuels. And don't forget to scout water in the burn areas. If you can put all three together, you'll find areas where the deer seem to congregate."

Jim McGowan is a wildlife biologist on the Colville National Forest in Washington. He explains that determining habitat conditions and whether deer are using an area is easy - if you know what to look for. "Look for browse species such as Ceanothus, serviceberry or rose," he suggests. "Willow and aspen can be good species to scout for. We're trying to encourage those species."

"Look for the pattern that was established by the fire," suggests McGowan. "Deer and elk for the most part don't venture too far from good escape cover or hiding cover. They'll take advantage of steep canyons, and if you have a mosaic pattern of burned area with some good cover still available, or a partially burned stand, they'll find that to be comfortable, with the security to come out and feed in the openings. If you find a large burned area - say, several thousand torched acres with no escape - I'd work the edges of that. But you won't find a lot of value in the burn area its


Knowing what deer prefer for habitat - whether it's feed or cover or type of terrain - can mean the key to good scouting, and that can be the key to a good hunt. "The big mule deer like certain areas after a fire," says Waterbury. "If the fire exposed a bunch of big rocks or jumble cliffs or fallen-down lodgepole, that may attract them."

Fire can help keep sagebrush in check in areas where it has dominated grasslands and reduced the deer forage. Where Gambel's oak grows thick and impenetrable, fire can open stands and provide good winter range. Fire increases plant nutrients, most notably potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and potash. Crude fiber and protein also tend to increase, as well as water and fat content. Red-stem Ceanothus, a highly valued species for deer forage, increases dramatically after both spring and fall fires.

"With a late-season burn, say in October or November, you won't get as much growth as you would with a spring burn," says Stutler. "With a fire in June or July or even early August, the annuals and even perennials will respond pretty quickly. A fire can also free up water resources in the area. Because of the reduced brush and vegetation, creeks will often flow better and you'll see some springs come back. In a drought year, the animals may actually have better water after a burn."

Historically, the dominant disturbance in a forest ecosystem was fire - low-intensity, frequent burns that reduced tree density and favored fire-resistant species such as ponderosa pine. But today, after decades of putting out fires, many forests are heavily stocked, choked with small-diameter trees and heavy brush, with a substantial increase in shade-tolerant conifers such as Douglas fir and grand fir. Dense thickets of ponderosa pine have shaded out understory shrubs and grasses in many stands, and agency management of public forests has been severely hampered by increasing public involvement and the intervention of environmental groups.

On one national forest in eastern Oregon, the Forest Service hasn't had a timber sale for over three years. On the Winema National Forest in southwest Oregon, timber harvest remains far below the levels anticipated in the forest plan. Appeals and litigation continue over virtually every timber sale proposed. Fire suppression and the lack of harvest are having major effects on mule deer habitats, which are rapidly losing the critical forage component.

Prescribed fire is a commonly used tool for forest health and habitat improvement, and its use will rise dramatically over the next few years. Prescribed fires reduce fuel loading, maintain or prevent certain vegetation types, and create a diversity of age-classes that provide both forage and cover. Prescribed fire cuts back on slash and to burns off duff in areas where their heavy accumulation prevents growth of understory forage.

"It depends on the location," says Waterbury, "but generally with prescribed fires that benefit deer habitat, we try to improve bitterbrush and mountain mahogany. We may target vegetation, helping the area to come back with a different type of forage, or the plan could include influencing willows or getting them to sprout. Some burns are planned to kill off weed species, or just stimulate the grass to come back. If there's a heavy pine mat, the grass won't come back unless you burn it off periodically. Many prescribed fires are planned to take out excess sagebrush or kill off junipers."

Prescribed fire can stimulate browse, create openings in dense, inaccessible plant communities, and increase nutrient content and palatability of forage. Surface fires of moderate intensity promote regeneration of crown-sprouting shrubs and prepare the seedbed for herbs and shrubs.

"In timber and chaparral, fires will reduce the dead fuels and also release nutrients," explains Stutler. "After a fire, you get rapid growth of the bitterbrush and mahogany, and you have all sorts of new plants coming up everywhere. With the conifer species you get new seedlings, and the deer really work those over. With a successful underburn, the bottom-line objective for deer habitat improvement is offering a lot more forage per acre."

In areas where chaparral adjoins oak woodlands, prescribed fires can create access through the chaparral to the oaks' understory. Late summer or early fall burning promotes the highest seed crop for most species in these plant communities.

"We have a lot of programs in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation," says Waterbury. "Prescribed fire can provide a big-game habitat benefit for both deer and elk. Most all of Oregon's eastside forests have good programs for fires that benefit habitat. They often focus on improving winter range, or sometimes summer range."

"It doesn't have to be a 10,000-acre fire to create good habitat," says Stutler. "If you do a 50-acre prescribed burn, that can generate a honeypot of fresh feed with cover around it. Those are often the best places to hunt."

Campaign fires of 10,000 acres rarely create the sort of landscape that fire managers want or deer prefer. A fire of major proportions may improve some habitat, but deer may have travel far to find good cover. Smaller burns are more likely to result in pockets of cover and feed, and deer are more likely to use such areas.

"Like all of our burns, we tried to get a mosaic on the ground," adds McGowan. "On most such fires, maybe 50 percent to 75 percent of the area is actually burned. The thicker spots that remain provide hiding and escape cover for the deer, with more open breaks between the good cover. We generally keep the burn units relatively small to midsize; there's lots of unburned habitat for the deer to use for escape cover both during and after the burn."

How soon is too soon to hunt a burn? How long is too long to wait? Many firefighters tell of seeing deer, elk, turkeys and other game in a burn area immediately after a fire. "During the Yellowstone fires and the Idaho State Complex in 1994, we had deer and elk back in the burns before we had the fires mopped up," says Stutler. "I've seen them rolling in the ashes before we leave. It depends a lot on how much moisture is left in the ground after the burn, and it depends on drought conditions. But as soon as new growth of any kind starts, they'll be back in there."


Internet resources:

Fire Effects Information System: www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/

Wildfire News: www.wildfirenews.com

Regional Fire Reports: www.fs.fed.us/fire/reports.shtml

Fire Ecology: www.fs.fed.us/fire/operations/ecology

Prescribed Fire: www.fs.fed.us/fire/operations/rxfire

Wildland Fire Assessment System: Drought and lightning maps, fuel moisture

and fire danger maps: www.fs.fed.us/land/wfas/

Pacific Northwest Coordination Center: www.or.blm.gov/nwcc/

California Regional Fire: www.fs.fed.us/r5/fire/

Pacific Northwest Fire Information Sources: www.or.blm.gov/nwcc/websites/rel-sites.htm

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