By C.J. Winand
Occasionally, something is written that makes you sit back and say, “Man, why didn’t I think of that?” That’s what happened when I attended the Quality Deer Management Association’s national meeting last year.
Assistant Professor Dr. Marcus Lashley, from Mississippi State University’s MSU Deer Lab, presented a paper entitled, “How to Maximize Nutrient Availability in Native Vegetation with Fire and Chainsaw.” Although many interesting and on-the-ground techniques were discussed, Lashley’s most interesting finding was describing the benefits of burning a 30-yard radius around your treestand to improve bowhunting opportunities. What a pleasure it was to listen to someone “buck the norm” with actual biological data, and better yet, Lashley is a diehard bowhunter!
Most everyone has heard of Smokey Bear. Created in 1944, this wildfire prevention control ad is the longest running public-service message in U.S. history. Generations of Americans grew up understanding their responsibility to control wildfires. Uncontrolled and unwanted fires are still a serious threat to millions of acres of forests.
So effective was this campaign, that as a freshman in college I still remember questioning a professor on his lecture that prescribed burns can be incredibly beneficial to wildlife, especially for whitetails. Like many young wildlife-management students, I just couldn’t accept the thought that prescribed fire was a positive tool for enhancing deer habitat.
The fact is, prescribed burns can help significantly reduce excessive forest-floor fuels (leaf litter and downed brush/wood). Additionally, burning releases many nutrients, which significantly increases soil fertility. These burned areas eventually rejuvenate into early successional plant species, or to a deer, turn the areas into a Garden of Eden. As an added bonus, burned forests contain fewer ticks and chiggers.
Unlike the Smokey Bear ads, forest managers know the absence of low-intensity fires in many of our forests have increased the risk of large fires that put wildlife and humans at serious risk. The overall benefits deer receive by burning far outweighs any negatives, if there are any.
As Lashley started to speak on “bow-range burning,” the whole audience came to full attention, and he didn’t disappoint. Lashley described his nontraditional technique as nothing more than a 0.25-acre micro-fire, with a treestand located in the middle. Better yet, instead of burning during the dormant winter season, he was burning his hunting areas 30 days prior to the opening day of bow season!
Lashley showed the real beauty of this technique is that it doesn’t take long for almost all the deer in the area to come visit specific burn areas. Compared to surrounding areas, these burned areas produce a super high-quality grocery store for deer. He also pointed out, “Anyone can burn safely at this scale, and it will increase your comfort levels to eventually scale up to levels suitable to manage nutrition for the whole population.”
We learned in college the standard forest-management practice is to conduct a prescribed burn during the dormant growing season (say, January to March). And yes, there are benefits, but as Lashley stated, “Burning during the nontraditional growing season also can be beneficial to deer.” Deer in the South have two stress periods — late summer and late winter — while many deer in the North struggle just prior to green-up.
It’s no secret that deer love disturbed areas, especially burned areas. Lashley stated, “In short, your fire will top-kill almost all the low-lying vegetation. The plants will respond by re-sprouting from all kinds of woody vegetation and forbs. The new succulent growth will become a magnet to all the deer in your area.”
You can have a great deer response to even a one-acre burn or food plot, but Lashley pondered how small could you go for bowhunting opportunities before you encountered diminishing returns? Assuming you have moderately sun-dappled, open tree canopy, it seems the 30-yard radius is not below the limit. But, the real beauty to bow-range burning is Mother Nature already paid for all your seed and fertilizer costs. Yes, the seed and nutrients are already in the soil.
Lashley also pointed out, “Maybe you have a stand that’s close to a known bedding or staging area where you’re having difficult hunting. A big-time benefit to bow-range burning is you can direct deer to your exact location.” In Lashley’s study, he had deer shift their movements to a daytime pattern by using bow-range burns. Again, it’s all about the groceries.
What about killing too many mid-story and hardwood saplings during the late-summer burns? Lashley’s research has shown the number of hardwoods in the understory will not be reduced. Depending on the timing of the fire during the growing season, this huge pulse of nutrients can be timed with the peak of antler growth, or when does are lactating. As biologists know, better groceries mean does produce more milk for fawns and bucks produce larger antlers.
Lashley’s remarkable data showed some plants doubled their protein and tripled their mineral content. This meant some plants were preferred 20 to 25 times more by deer than before his micro-fire technique.
It’s very important to understand you must get your burn plan and the associated permits by your state forestry agency approved prior to any implementation. Once your permits are accepted, Lashley suggests you rake or use a leaf blower to remove any leaves or debris around your treestand. He also uses these tools to establish a fire break along the 30-yard radius or perimeter of his bow-range burn.
As with any fires, little micro-burns can get away from you, especially on extremely dry days. In these situations, he uses a simple backpack water sprayer for any errant fires that may develop.
C.J.’s Summary: Although bow-range burns are on a very small scale, they can produce big-time results. In fact, bowhunters experienced 13 times more shot opportunities in October than other stands where the woods were not torched. Another benefit to bow-range burning is you can direct deer to your exact location. Depending on latitude, and the number of days left in the growing season, Northern bowhunters may want to start burning two months prior to the start of the bow season. Southern hunters only need to wait 30 days.
Dr. Marcus Lashley goes by @DrDisturbance on Twitter, and also has an excellent YouTube video on bow-range burning.
You can also check out the MS State University Extension website (Episode 026: Bow-range Burnin’).