EDGEFIELD, S.C. —Wildlife managers know the use of prescribed fire as a land management tool is an excellent way to improve wildlife habitat.
However, each spring wildlife biologists hear the fears of concerned hunters who don’t understand that prescribed burns in March and April — months generally known as wild turkey nesting months — are far more beneficial than harmful to wild turkey populations.
“A common misconception is that prescribed burns during March and April are detrimental to wild turkey populations because they burn lots of wild turkey nests,” said Dr. James Earl Kennamer, the National Wild Turkey Federation’s senior vice president for conservation programs.
However, the NWTF’s wildlife biologists have research showing the years of improved nesting and brood habitat created by a growing season prescribed fire is far more important to the turkey population than the loss of a few nests.
“Prescribed fire is a tool that historically was used only in winter months,” said Kennamer. “However, research has shown that growing season burning during late March and April — when shrubs and saplings start to bud — can be much more effective at reducing brush and saplings and stimulating grass and forb growth than winter burning.”
Prescribed fire is a land management tool that mimics a natural process. Introducing fire kills unwanted brush so natural grasses and plants that benefit wildlife are able to grow. Without prescribed fire, unwanted plants and trees will shade out beneficial plants on the forest floor and hazardous fuels will build up causing forests to become susceptible to devastating wildfires.
“While some nests are lost in spring burns, evidence shows that most hens will re-nest if they lose their first nest,” said Kennamer. “Especially if the loss of the nest occurs early in the incubation cycle.”
Research conducted separately on the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana and the Homochitto National Forest in Mississippi shows that hens prefer to nest in more open areas than the thick brushy areas forest managers are improving with fire. In fact, of 64 nests observed in Mississippi during the spring burning season, only four were located in areas scheduled to be burned and only two were actually destroyed by the fire.
“Although the prescribed burns may destroy a few turkey nests, the lush new plant growth after the burn attracts a multitude of insects and provides food and shelter for growing turkey poults,” NWTF Regional Biologist Joe Koloski said.
According to Koloski, the benefits can last up to five years and will help improve local turkey populations. However, if prescribed burns were not used the result would be a loss in value of the habitat as it matures further and a gradual decrease of young poult survival, which in turn would cause a decline in the turkey population.
“The improvement to forest health more than makes up for any minor negative impacts on nesting,” said Jeff Bien, U.S. Forest Service fire management officer for Homochitto National Forest.
Forest managers on Homochitto normally conduct a third of each year’s prescribed burns during the spring growing season while maintaining healthy turkey populations. In fact, burn areas are extremely popular with turkeys, and even with some turkey hunters.
“We see a lot of birds in recently burned areas,” Bien said. “We’ve even had people who have harvested birds in areas that were still smoking.”
Biologists also point toward evidence that spring is the historical time for cleansing fires in nature. Before humans interfered, spring lightning storms ignited fires that eliminated brush and opened forests up to new growth. This prevented devastating fires that can destroy forests and enhanced habitat for wildlife. Today’s prescribed fire regimen simulates nature’s original forest health plan.
“Turkeys, like many animals in the Southeast, have adapted to the natural cycles of fire that periodically renewed the forest,” Kennamer said. “This has been happening for centuries. We are restoring an important component to an ecosystem that evolved around fire. It is common to see turkeys feeding on exposed acorns and insects within hours after a prescribed burn, even with brush and grass still smoldering around them.”
A Plan to Help
Since 2002, NWTF state and local chapters have spent nearly $335,000 in 25 states and Ontario to help fund prescribed fire projects. Through the NWTF’s Hunting Heritage Super Fund, volunteers donate money to further the work that government agencies do on the ground.
“Our volunteers really believe in keeping the forests healthy,” said Kennamer. “They know that in order for their kids and grandchildren to enjoy what we have now, they have to help manage our forests.”
As the NWTF continues to work with state and federal agencies, forests will become healthier, turkey populations will continue to increase and the trend of devastating wildfires will decline.