The Game Commission is burning its way toward 10,000 acres of better wildlife habitat. During its spring burning season, the Game Commission treated a record 8,637 acres with prescribed fire to improve habitat on state game lands and Hunter Access properties statewide.
That amount eclipses the 2015 total by nearly 2,000 acres – and the season isn’t over yet.
More prescribed burns are planned to occur on state game lands – as soon as this week, if conditions are right – and the agency expects this year’s acreage total to exceed 10,000 acres.
This is especially great news for deer hunters who hunt on state game lands.
The regeneration of tree species after a burn can result in a 400-percent increase in available food for deer, maximizing the habitat’s ability to provide for more whitetails.
“The key to having more abundant deer populations is by providing better deer habitat,” said Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough. “Our deer program is focused on keeping the deer herd to maintain a balance with what the habitat can support. As you improve the habitat for deer, the area can also support more deer.”
The agency’s prescribed burn program is one of the most effective means to improve deer hunting on game lands.
In order to increase the deer density, the only responsible and sustainable option is to increase the habitat quality for deer. This focus on habitat quality is the cornerstone for how the Game Commission manages its system of state game lands.
The majority of today’s forests are 80 to 125 years old and lack a substantial component of young forest that provide deer and other wildlife with abundant browse, forage and cover.
Providing abundant browse for deer is just one benefit.
Prescribed fire also promotes tree species beneficial to deer and other wildlife, said Benjamin Jones, who oversees the agency’s prescribed-fire program.
“Prescribed fire helps promote trees such as oaks,” Jones said. “Young oak seedlings are well adapted to fire, while other trees such as maple and birch are not.
“In oak-dominated habitats, that’s important because, if anything happens to the overstory trees – whether it’s a weather event or gypsy-moth defoliation – the seedlings on the forest floor will define the next forest, and we want to make sure oaks are a big part of that forest,” Jones said.
By removing dead wood and other fuels, prescribed burns also reduce the chance of dangerous wildfires. This spring saw a record year for destructive wildfires in Pennsylvania.
Prescribed fire can be used to mitigate wildfire growth by reducing high levels of dead vegetation and brush, known as “fuel” to firefighters. Studies also show prescribed fire is an effective method of controlling tick populations.
At Game Commission burn sites, the number of ticks declined by 88 percent after a burn, remained 75 percent lower that fall, and still was 66 percent lower into the next spring.
“Every acre of state game lands treated with prescribed fire represents a win for wildlife and hunters,” Hough said. “And we’re proud our crews have improved significantly more acres through prescribed fire each year since 2012.
Although using prescribed fire is extremely cost effective, especially when compared to other techniques such as planting food plots, there is still a substantial cost.
“The agency has budgeted $2 million to improve habitat through prescribed fire this year,” said Hough. “This is just another example of how hunters’ license dollars are being invested to improve hunting and benefit many other species of wildlife.”
Conducting safe and effective prescribed burns to improve wildlife habitat on state game lands and other tracts depends on optimal site and weather conditions. An anticipated burn window is established between time periods when optimum site and weather conditions could be present.
As more exact weather and site conditions become known, the window for the burn is narrowed.Updates on individual burns are provided on the Game Commission’s Prescribed Fire webpage. Hunters can view a map of potential burn areas for this fall. The map indicates whether a burn area is planned, imminent (will happen within 24 to 48 hours), or completed.