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Growing-season Burns Helping Habitat, Wildlife

Controlled burn this year at Silver Lake WMA. Photo by: Joe Burnam, GA DNR

After nearly two decades of working with growing-season burns, Alan Isler knows the short- and long-term effects.

Isler, a DNR wildlife resource manager and former Georgia Forestry Commission employee, has seen five years of controlled burns free Doerun Pitcherplant Bog’s pine savanna from hardwoods that had invaded the once open habitat. Yet, when he sets the next prescribed fire at the Colquitt County natural area or Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area near Bainbridge, he will also see almost immediate results.

“Within three to four days, we’ll have lush green vegetation out there,” Isler said.

Growing-season fire sounds like an oxymoron. Fire when plants are growing, not dormant, is good?

For Georgia habitats and wildlife that evolved with what some call summer fire or lightning-season burns, the short answer is very short: Yes.

Julie Robbins, southwest Georgia supervisor for the Wildlife Resources Division’s Game Management Section, describes growing-season burns as a critical component of managing upland game birds on WMAs in her region such as Silver Lake, Mayhaw, Chickasawhatchee and River Creek.

“It is the most cost-effective technique we can employ to create and enhance nesting and brood-rearing cover for game species such as northern bobwhite quail and eastern wild turkey,” Robbins writes. “Removing hardwood competition significantly increases the production of grasses and forbs that provide forage and cover for other species such as white-tailed deer.”

Historically, fires during spring and summer shaped ecosystems. These fires, writes Shan Cammack, senior wildlife ecologist and “burn boss” for Wildlife Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section, opened up the midstory, recycled nutrients back into the soil, created fertile mineral soil for the seeds of trees, grasses and plants, and stimulated flowering in fire-adapted plant species like wiregrass. But decades of suppressing fire have degraded the systems, undercutting wildlife and plants that depend on them.

In addition to the DNR’s ecoburner team, which includes Wildlife Resources Division and Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites staff and volunteers, Georgia also has an Interagency Burn Team (IBT) made up of volunteers and partners such as Georgia Forestry CommissionThe Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service and The Orianne Society conducting growing-season burns.

The team burned a record 1,785 acres during the last full week in May. For the season, which started April 1, burns have been applied to sites ranging from 88 acres at Clarks Hill WMA to 570 acres at Moody Forest WMA and Natural Area in Appling County and 55 acres at Reed Bingham State Park near Adel.

Highlights include burning:

Randy Tate, natural resources program manager for State Parks and Historic Sites, said fire management contributes to aesthetics, habitat management and reducing wildfire risks.

“For fire-dependent habitats on Georgia state parks, fire is the single most important management tool we have,” Tate writes. “In these habitats, it is crucial to sustaining rare and endangered species populations, like the gopher tortoise.”

Last year, nearly 4,300 acres was planned for growing-season fires on land the Wildlife Resources Division manages. This year’s goal is to increase that to more than 5,600 acres, not counting other public and private sites burned.

While concerns have been expressed about possible negative impacts on ground-nesting birds, research shows that many of these birds prefer to nest in recently burned areas, possibly resulting in fewer nests affected because the areas would not be targeted for fire. Some species, including turkeys, also re-nest if they lose their first one, especially if the loss happens early in their incubation cycle.

The National Wild Turkey Federation’s Robert Abernethy, assistant vice president of agency programs, said that, in general, the federation “fully supports” growing-season burns. According to Abernethy, who is also a wildlife biologist, the benefit of the improved habitat for turkeys and other wildlife outweighs the low number of nests lost.

“No matter how you slice it, black acres are where you want to hunt turkeys,” he said.

Cammack explained that growing-season burns are carefully planned to provide a mosaic of habitats. These burns also are typically smaller and set adjacent to suitable habitat for nesting and foraging.

The net result, she writes, is a restorative impact on ecosystems that can be “phenomenal,” leading to much healthier habitat for years to come.

In south Georgia, Isler can testify to the results – short-term and long-term.

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