Using Prescribed Fire to Improve Habitat and Regenerate Oak

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Use of Prescribed Fire to Regenerate Oak Forests

Prescribed fire is the best tool foresters have to regenerate oak forests.  Periodic fire shaped the composition of the forest prior to fire exclusion over the last century.  We can see that oak-dominated forest is now being overtaken by more shade-tolerant species, most of which are of lesser value to wildlife and not as valuable as shade intolerant species like oak and cherry.

Fire favors oak because it invests the first year of growth into its root system.  The taproot can resprout vigorously after the tree is top-killed by a fire, while species such as maple and poplar do not.  Oak does not compete well with other species that grow quickly the first year and overtake them.

Effects of fire vary because of differences in season of
burning and fire intensity. Season of burning affects
physiological condition of the plant and the ability of species
to resprout. Hardwoods have the greatest ability to sprout
when carbohydrate storage in their roots is high, i.e., in the
dormant season. In the growing season, root reserves are
lower and sprouting vigor is less. Fire intensity is critical
because certain species, such as the oaks, can survive
higher intensity fires than their competitors (Brose and Van
Lear 1998) because their sprouts originate deeper in the soil
than those of their competitors (Hane 1999).

Fire can be used to create new growth that is palatable for deer and regenerate blueberry. New blueberry bushes bear far more fruit than old, decrepit bushes.  When Mountain Laurel gets so thick, nothing else can grow and it is not providing good cover, it should be burned and will resprout vigorously.  The laurel/blueberry ecotype is fire adapted – it uses fire to out-compete other plants and is the first to show up after a fire.  Sassafras is another species that responds well to a burn, but not as desireable as a wildlife plant.  Deer will eat the new shoots of sassafras if better browse is not available.  Almost everything that pops up after prescribed fire is palatable and highly nutritious.

Repeated fires every few years on rotation on your land can keep new vegetation constantly springing up and increase plant diversity tremendously which, in turn, improves the browse availability and bedding cover for deer.  We can easily triple the tonnage of available browse and favor fruit-bearing trees and shrubs.

Wildlife biologist Grant Woods, a habitat guru, uses prescribed fire as a tool to create food and cover on his land in Arkansas.  Fire is the subject of many of Dr. Woods’ videos:

My youtube video on Rx fire takes you on a tour of a recently burned area.  This area came up thick with new trees and millions of teaberry plants with plenty of fruit to feed grouse and turkeys:

I have included a link to a USFS article that is a very good one for information on fire in oak forests and talks about oak savanna:

When I was in California working, I wandered through a lot of oak savanna ecotype out there.  It was very beautiful and full of wildlife.  Deer layed in the shade of oaks and quail were everywhere.  I would like to try creating a grassland/oak habitat here in PA.  If anyone would like to try it on their land, let me know.




About the Author:

Wildlife habitat manager and consulting forester from Central PA. Studied environmental Agriculture specializing in wildlife management and Forestry. B.S. Agriculture, Masters degree in Forestry. 30 years experience in land investment, forestry and wildlife habitat improvement. Currently working as a Farm Bill Forester for Pheasants Forever on Game Commission and Golden Winged Warbler Initiative.

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