Since Smokey Bear’s 1950 rescue from a wildfire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, the United States Forest Service has mounted a hugely successful educational campaign to help prevent such catastrophes. While the program has helped combat these unnatural tragedies, it has sometimes caused misunderstandings of the value of controlled burning, which actually helps to improve wildlife habitats.
For thousands of years, fires caused by lightning or set by Native Americans burned tall grass prairies. These fires killed invasive woody plants and trees while encouraging fruit-bearing shrubs and forbs, which maintained the grassland habitat preferred by grazing bison, deer and elk as well as smaller animals.
Prescribed burning remains an important wildlife management tool for maintaining and improving grasslands. While Smokey Bear is right to discourage careless burning, his educational program has caused the underutilization of fire as a management tool and led some to misjudge its benefits.
Research has proven fire as an invaluable tool for maintaining and restoring native grasslands. It can recycle nutrients tied up in old plant growth, control woody and invasive plants, remove herbaceous weeds, improve forage, enhance plant growth, reduce the risk of uncontrolled wildfires and improve upland habitat.
Brushlands can also be invigorated and maintained with fire. Burning old fields will control saplings and other woody vegetation while improving grassland quality for both nesting wildlife and grazing livestock.
An occasional burn allows nesting cover used by quail, pheasants, waterfowl, and songbirds to remain productive while cattails and sedges can be rejuvenated. If you want to encourage more oaks in a woodlot, a fire will kill off less tolerant species like maple and basswood while allowing oak trees to compete more successfully.
Controlled burning is a preferred method used for midterm management of property enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program as well as other conservation initiatives, and it can also be used by do-it-yourself land managers who want to improve wildlife habitats.
As a bonus, burning is also more cost-effective than other treatments like bulldozing, cutting, or chemicals. It also can prepare ground for planting grass mixtures and overseeding.
Timing of a burn is very important. It’s used to minimize the impact on wildlife species that may be nesting while also helping to better select what plants are being controlled. For instance, a late spring burn will control woody vegetation and cool season grasses better than an early spring burn.
Though fall burns are possible and can be beneficial, they are often avoided due to the cooler temperatures, drier ground and destruction to winter wildlife habitats they may cause.
There are many other factors to consider prior to a controlled burn. These include upland birds’ nesting habits, desires to conserve wildflowers, resources available to monitor the burn, proper Environmental Protection Agency permits and notifications of local authorities. It’s not something that should be done haphazardly and needs to be carefully planned.
To learn about prescribed and controlled burning and if it may be beneficial for your property, you should get some expert advice. Luckily, it’s available free of charge from the Ohio Division of Wildlife and Pheasants Forever biologists.
For ideas about developing wildlife management plans, including controlled burning, try:
• Mark Witt, private land biologist, Wildlife District Two, 952 Lima Ave., Findlay. He can be reached at 419-898-0960, ext. 26, or visit the Division of Wildlife’s website at www.wildohio.gov.
• Cody Grasser, Pheasants Forever wildlife biologist, 419-551-3875, CGrasser@pheasantsforever.org. Website: www.pheasantsforever.org.
“Habitat for wildlife is continually shrinking — I can at least provide a way station.” — Peter Coyote
“We are the only species which, when it chooses to do so, will go to great effort to save what it might destroy.” — Wallace Stegner
Along the way:
Whether reviled or revered, coyotes are very clever and adaptive animals. The public is invited to learn more about the lives of coyotes during a free informational seminar provided by the Division of Wildlife on Monday, May 8, in Mansfield.
Topics covered include coyote biology, ecology, population trends and current status, dispelling myths about coyotes, and what to do if you encounter a coyote. Preventing, reducing, and eliminating conflicts with urban wildlife, including coyotes, will also be addressed.
The seminar will be held at Gorman Nature Center, 2295 Lexington Ave., Mansfield 44907, and will run from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Preregistration is required, as seating is limited. Call the Division of Wildlife District Two Headquarters at 419-424-5000 to register.
For information on coyotes and other native wildlife, visit www.wildohio.gov.
• The 2017-2018 hunting and trapping seasons have been approved by the Ohio Wildlife Council. For those planning a deer hunting vacation, the seasons are: deer archery, Sept. 30-Feb. 4; youth deer gun, Nov. 18-19; deer gun, Nov. 27-Dec. 3 and Dec. 16-17; and deer muzzleloader, Jan. 6-9.
• Thursday-Friday: trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.
• May 7: Black Swamp Muzzle Loaders novelty shoot, patched round-ball only, 1 p.m., Portage Township 19, ¼-mile west of Hancock County 139. Contact: email@example.com.
• May 6-7: Ohio’s free fishing days. On these two days, Ohio residents may fish in state waters without a fishing license. It’s a great weekend to try something new or revisit an old hobby.
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard 45867-0413 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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