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Get Fired Up for Quality Deer Habitat

By: David Ledford

One of the best, yet least used, tools one can use to improve habitat for white–tailed deer is fire. Man has used fire for centuries to clear land, drive game, and improve habitat for wildlife. Naturally occurring fires have blackened the landscape for thousands of years, and the result has been the evolution of plants and animals that actually depend on fire for their very existence. Many of these fire–dependant plants are excellent, high protein, high energy deer foods. Plants like butterfly pea, milk pea, sensitive briar, and wild bean are naturally occurring plants/weeds that are promoted by fire. These plants are legumes, and are in the same family as soybeans and cowpeas. Legumes are high protein foods because they take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the plant tissue as protein. The proteins in these plants are then eaten by deer, and used for the growth of muscles, bones, fawns, and antlers.

Many landowners and hunters use food plots to provide high quality food sources for their deer herds. While food plots can improve the quality of deer habitat, most food plots are actually a very small percentage of the total land area available to manage for high quality deer foods. How many places have you hunted that consisted of several hundred acres, and the only attempt at boosting the food source for deer has been a couple of two–acre food plots?

Many landowners are not aware of, or have ever considered, the opportunities they have to improve food sources for deer by managing native vegetation over the entirety of their property. Nothing has to be planted, and managing native, wild vegetation can be the easiest, most cost effective way to give your deer population a high quality food source. While there are several things that can be done to manage naturally occurring “weeds,” this article will address using prescribed fire to improve deer habitat.

Notice that I italicized the words “prescribed fire.” Using fire to manage habitat takes some training and expertise. So, at this point I have to recommend that before you attempt to use prescribed fire to manage habitat, ask for professional assistance from your state forestry agency or a qualified private consultant. Before a fire is set, fire breaks have to be plowed and you must follow the regulations your state has regarding the use of prescribed fire. Also, always make sure that enough personnel and equipment are present to assist you in the event that a fire spreads into an unintended area.

There are three habitat types that are well suited to being managed with fire. They are (1) pine woods, (2) fallow fields, and (3) cutovers. A fallow field is considered to be an abandoned pasture or crop field that has been allowed to grow thick with weeds, briars, grasses, and maybe even small trees. A cutover is an area that has been clear–cut and has not been replanted with pine trees. If the objective for a piece of land that falls into one of these categories does not include letting it revert to forest through natural succession, fire can be used to improve and maintain deer forage.

If an old field or a cutover is not burned, both will eventually become a forest. The forage available to white–tailed deer in the first four to five years after a clear–cut or after a field is abandoned is fairly abundant and nutritious. However, as the process of succession takes over, small trees appear, grow to a height that deer cannot browse the leaves, and prevent sunlight from reaching the ground. This absence of sunlight on the ground eventually leads to a loss of vegetation underneath the trees; the result is that there is virtually no food available to deer. While this type of area can be good bedding and security cover, there are not many food sources available. The use of fire in the early stages of this successional process can maintain quality food sources as well as cover for whitetails.

The question then becomes, “When do I burn?” Burning in late winter or early spring will result in a quick green–up that can start feeding deer immediately. Also, using fire during this time of the year is usually the best for promoting native legumes. How often to burn a fallow field or cutover is another question to consider. It is usually wrong to make a definite prescription for frequency of burning. Therefore, you burn when it is needed. When a fire is needed depends on the soil quality and the type of vegetation that dominates the site. Some sites might need annual burning, while some might need burning every three years. As a rule of thumb, I would not go more than three years without a burn. If you have a large (i.e., more than 10 acres) area to manage, it might be best to divide it into multiple sections with firebreaks and burn rotating blocks in alternating years. You then have different age classes of vegetation, which can provide a variety of food and cover.

Another way to determine if it is time to burn is to look at the ground cover. If the ground is covered with a thick, matted layer of grasses, it is time to burn. The legumes and other native plants you want need some bare soil to grow. On the other hand, if the ground has very few weeds or grasses, and all you can see is leaves and pine needles on the ground, it is time to burn.

Some fallow fields and most cutovers have a thick complement of hardwood saplings. If these are too thick and big, a fire may not kill them and they can prevent the sun from hitting the ground. Using fire without allowing sunlight on the ground is like taking a bath without using soap. The desired effect is just not achieved. To remove these hardwoods, a herbicide application may be necessary. The herbicide I prefer to use in this case is Arsenal® (American Cyanamid Corporation). Arsenal kills hardwoods, but it promotes the very legumes that you want to grow. It also does not kill blackberries, which can provide good forage and cover for deer.

Pine woods are another place where fire can improve the quality of deer forage. Do not try to burn very young loblolly or slash pines if timber growth is an objective. These pine species need to be at least 30 feet tall before fire is used and, even then, you have to be very careful to avoid killing trees with the fire. Longleaf pine is much more fire resistant, and if it is burned at the right time of year, fire generally has no negative effects on longleaf pine growth.

As is true in fallow fields and cutovers, a prescribed fire can help you achieve the type of habitat improvement you want in a pine stand only if there is adequate sunlight reaching the ground. In most pine stands, the trees are too thick to allow sunlight to reach the ground. If this is the case, thin the pine stand to about 50 or 60 square feet of basal area. Depending on the size of the trees, this generally translates to around 80–200 trees per acre after harvest. The bigger the trees, the fewer per acre and vice versa. Consult a professional forester to determine how much is required to get the stand thinned to where there is sunlight on the ground. If there is not adequate sunlight reaching the ground, you will end up with nothing but pine needles instead of a lush understory of deer food and cover.

As is true with fallow fields and cutovers, a pine stand may contain a significant component of hardwoods. If the pine stand is being managed for timber production, chances are that those hardwoods will never get old enough to produce mast for deer. Remove the hardwoods either with a harvest operation or with an appropriate herbicide. If the hardwoods are not producing deer food, they are just preventing the growth of legumes and other deer foods by blocking out the sun.

The timing and frequency of prescribed fires in a pine stand is generally the same as in fallow fields and cutovers. My best advice on these two issues is to consult with a professional wildlife biologist who is management–oriented and knowledgeable about prescribed burning. Your state wildlife agency, private consultants, and some timber companies also have biologists who can help you make management decisions.

Many hunters are interested in how this type of habitat management affects hunting. There is the concern that an area will be too open to be used by deer in the daylight hours. Certainly, there will be more food, but if deer only come to it at night, what good does it do a hunter? This is where habitat management becomes an art as well as a science. Through management with fire and other techniques, maintain a ground layer of fairly thick vegetation that is from waist– to head-high. The vegetation should be thick enough that at four feet off of the ground, you can only see a few yards. However, if you get 20 feet high in a tree stand, you could see a deer as much as 200 or 300 yards away through gaps in the thick ground layer of vegetation. Generally speaking, deer will use this type of cover continually if available.

This is where you can start answering your own questions related to how often to burn. If the vegetation in the area being managed starts getting too high to see down into from your tree stand, it is probably time to burn.

In closing, if you have a piece of land that has you puzzled as to how to improve the quality of the deer habitat, and you do not have a bunch of money to spend, remember one simple recommendation: When in doubt, set it on fire!

David Ledford is a Wildlife Biologist with the Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation in Batesburg, South Carolina. He is also an avid deer hunter, a QDMA member, and a previous contributor to Quality Whitetails.