It’s not easy turning the page on decades of group thinking.
There’s some of that going on right now, though, and deer hunters are benefitting.
How exactly? Think fire.
For years and years, fish and wildlife agencies, state and federal forestry departments, and other landowners treated every fire in the woods as a foe to be vanquished. That’s come to be thought of as what some call the “Smoky Bear mentality.”
Now, land managers have come to real.ize that, for centuries, fire was a natural part of the ecosystem, said Ben Jones, who oversees the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s prescribed fire program as chief of its habitat and planning division. What’s more, he said, it should be again.
Oak regeneration is one key reason why, said Todd Breininger, forest program specialist for Pennsylvania’s state bureau of forestry. He said the oaks everyone from wildlife to hunters to lumbermen value so much — and want to see in the forests of tomorrow — need fire to thrive.
“Basically, what we’re trying to do is reduce a lot of the competition for our oaks. We’re trying to kill all the competing vegetation, like red maple and birch, to get our next forest of oaks to grow,” Breininger said.
Hunters can take advantage of that.
Whitetails — as well as black bears, turkeys, ruffed grouse, rabbits, songbirds, timber rattlesnakes and many other forms of wildlife — love areas that have been burned, said Pete Sussenbach, who heads the Game Commission’s bureau of wildlife habitat management.
“There’s not a form of wildlife that you don’t see coming or going from these areas. It’s pretty incredible,” he said.
It doesn’t take them long to show up, either.
“They often quite literally end up in these areas when there’s still smoke coming off,” added Ben Jones, who oversees the agency’s prescribed fire program as chief of its habitat and planning division. “We routinely see deer and turkeys and other wildlife moving in as soon as we’re done.”
It’s no secret why, said C.J. Winand of Maryland, a wildlife biologist and archery author. Much like a fresh clear cut, burned areas offer an abundance of food.
“Fire is a deer’s best friend, next to a plow and a chainsaw,” he said.
Sussenbach pointed out that burned-over areas see a 400 percent increase in available forage — i.e. deer browse — within weeks. The plants that sprout up are more palatable and easier to digest than other foods, too, he added. Whitetails flock to such places, Winand said.
“When you look at the deer numbers and the carrying capacity, it’s insane,” Winand said.
Prescribed fire aren’t wildfires; they’re much more controlled. In that way, they’re less natural than ones start via something like lightning.
But no matter. Wildlife doesn’t care why fires are being set, and neither should hunters, Winand said. They just need to get to them.
“I’d burn half the state if it was up to me. That’s no exaggeration. I’d burn, burn, burn,” Winand said.
Hunters can find burns a couple of ways.
State wildlife and forestry agencies often maintain databases hunters can access to locate burn sites. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Game commission maintains a map of them on its website (pgc.state.pa.us). Look under wildlife, then habitat management.
It details where burns have been done, the date they were completed and the acres involved. Planned burns are listed, too.
In the future, the site also may contain other details, such as the goal of the burn, Jones said.
The bureau of forestry doesn’t offer an online database of fire sites, Breininger said. Hunters can, though, call the district forest office for the area they want to hunt and get details on what burns took place and where.
Some burns are done in fields, others in the woods, Jones said. Some will be obvious, especially if removing some of the overhead canopy was a goal. Others will be more subtle.
But all are worth hunting.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity for us to improve hunting opportunities on our game lands and for hunters to see more deer and other wildlife,” Jones said.
Expect to see more of it in the future. Pennsylvania’s ureau of forestry is burning hundreds of acres a year, though the goal is to do more. The Game Commission is burning 10,000 acres annually, with a goal of getting to 20,000 by 2020.
“Momentum for using fire is building,” Breininger said.