Use of Prescribed Fire on Wildlife Management Areas

April 24, 2019 at 4:20 pm

By Wildlife Biologist Mark Caron Increasingly MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologists have been conducting prescribed burns on some of the wildlife management areas (WMAs) found throughout the state.  Also known as ‘controlled burns’, this habitat management option is yet another tool available to MDIFW land managers.  Controlled burns are conducted under strict and specific conditions and most often occur in the dormant season or in the early part of the growing season.  A detailed prescribed fire plan is written for each burn and includes objectives of the burn, burn area descriptions, and specifics on conducting the actual burn.  The use of prescribed fire is quite common in other parts of the country, but we in the northeast are limited due to the short burning window of opportunity in the spring. Prescribed fire is a cost-effective tool that has many benefits.   The timing of controlled burns and how they are applied influence how habitats respond and ultimately how wildlife will utilize the habitat.  Depending on habitat and/or wildlife goals, will determine a rotation schedule and acreage to burn at a time.  Fields for example are managed on a predetermined schedule and prescribed burns also occur on a predetermined rotation schedule.  Fields are broken into smaller management units with some units being burned, and others not.  This can create a mosaic of diverse habitats for both plants and wildlife.  Burns most often occur in grasslands or maintained fields but also in early-successional habitats such as older fields and young forest.  Early successional habitats often contain more open understories that provide a variety of grasses (seed producers), legumes, wildflowers, shrubs and saplings all of which can provide both food and cover for many wildlife species.  Stimulating new growth in grasses also promotes higher densities of insects available to wildlife. Fire can be used to reduce combustible fuels that could lead to wildfires, and thus help to regenerate native annual grasses, shrubs, and other vegetation.  They also help to reduce invasive plants, shrubs, and woody vegetation.  Burns can also improve old field habitat for nesting birds including bobolink, meadowlark, and savannah sparrow.  The use of prescribed fire is also used to improve both nesting and brood rearing habitat for wild turkey. Pitch Pine-Scrub-Oak communities are an example of a fire-dependent ecosystem.  They are found in the southern part of the state and including both the Brownfield Bog and Killick Pond WMAs.  If left to natural forest succession, the Scrub-Oak component would outcompete the Pitch Pine.  The use of mechanical means (forestry) has shown to be successful to regenerate the Scrub-Oak, but poor results for Pitch Pine.  The use of fire therefore is used to promote the Pitch Pine and prevent the succession to an oak-pine forest.  This natural community is associated with several rare, threatened, and endangered species.  For example the Pine Barrens Zanclognatha (State Threatened) requires both the pitch pine for egg laying and young scrub oak for feeding.  Periodic prescribed burns are therefore critical to perpetuate this rare natural community. Currently, several MDIFW regional wildlife biologists are taking additional training on how to conduct prescribed burns.  This training is being provided by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), who also are very active in the use of burns on lands that they manage here in Maine.  Our agency will continue to expand the use of prescribed fire as a management tool on its WMAs and work alongside other NGOs like TNC as well as other state and federal agencies.