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Fire & Pheasants

Most people wouldn't associate fire with good pheasant hunting. But that's what Pheasants Forever is using to improve the ringneck's habitat.

by Daniel D. Lamoreux This article was originally published by PRIMEDIA, Inc. in the following magazines; Michigan Sportsman, Wisconsin Sportsman, Minnesota Sportsman, Iowa Game & Fish, Illinois Game & Fish, Indiana Game & Fish, Ohio Game & Fish, Pennsylvania Game & Fish, New

The ring-necked pheasant isn’t native to North America. Rather, its place of origin is Asia. In some circles, George Washington is credited with bringing pheasants to America in the late 1700s. Others claim the birds we see today are actually descended from later releases in Oregon. Regardless of its beginnings, the ring-necked pheasant became one of our country’s most prized game birds.

Because of its adaptability to agricultural landscapes, the pheasant was able to secure a place for itself in a wide variety of ecosystems from coast to coast. Like many other species, however, this game bird has seen better times.

With the expansion of human development and the evolution of farming techniques into the efficient operations we see today, pheasant populations began dwindling in the 1970s. Sportsmen, as in so many other cases, saw the need for action and took decisive steps to reverse this trend.

Pheasants Forever was established in 1982 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and enhancement of pheasant populations. Their work would take many shapes over the years, but the goals would always remain the same: improvement of pheasant habitat, education of the public and management of agricultural lands in such a way that would benefit both farmers and wildlife.

Although many sportsmen“s organizations to great things for wildlife, Pheasants Forever took a unique approach that has been extremely successful in their particular fight. All funds that are collected locally, with the exception of annuals dues payments, remain with the local chapters and are used for that area“s projects.

Their policy of local priority has increased participation and enthusiasm on the part of chapter members because they can literally see their dollars at work. Ultimately this avid participation results in more tires hitting the road, and thus, in their first 16 years of operation, Pheasants Forever spent over $70 million on habitat projects covering more than 2 million acres throughout North America.

More importantly, this localized approach has allowed the development of specific treatment philosophies, which more effectively address local habitat needs. Fire is becoming an important tool for many of those treatments, and its use becomes more commonplace each year.

“Five years ago we probably didn’t burn an acre of grass,” explained Jeff Gaska about the use of fire. Gaska is a regional wildlife biologist with Pheasants Forever. “1999 was the first year that we kept track of acres burned. National we had 3,828 burn projects treating 77,962 acres.”

As new as the practice is to this particular organization, the use of fire is not a novel idea. Public-land managers learned a great deal about the role of fire within the natural landscape in the wake of the Yellowstone fires of 1988. Since that time, the necessity of fire has become apparent in many different environments, including those environments occupied by ringnecks.

From lightning strikes on the prairie to planned burns by Native Americans, fire has occurred in cycles across the Midwest and Eastern portions of the United States throughout the nation“s history. In fact, entire plant communities depend upon periodic fires in order to survive and prosper. By sporadically striking a match to dried grasses, we are simply returning a natural life-cycle component that we had previously, and erroneously, removed.

WHY USE FIRE?

“When talking about pheasants,” Gaska said. “There are basically three reasons for using fire.”

Conversion of cover is the first reason. Basically, this is the process by which we convert an area from cool-season grasses to warm-season grasses and wildflowers. This change is desirable for a variety of reasons. “Warm-season grasses are the new priority,” Gaska said. “Because they provide more appropriate nesting and brood-rearing habitat. They“re also better able to naturally survive problems associate with this part of the country, such as specific weather conditions and types of insects.”

Warm-season grasses include native prairie grasses such as switchgrass, bit bluestem, little bluestem and Indian grass, with wildflowers such as black-eyed Susan, yellow coneflower and purple prairie clover included in the mix to add diversity and to attract beneficial insects.

Native grass varieties have stiff stems, which provide protection from heavy snow and thus provide excellent cover for wildlife. Additionally, they develop extensive fibrous root systems that hold soil and reduce erosion. This characteristic makes these types of plantings ideal as filter strips along streams and waterways and as buffers around wetlands.

Although they are more expensive to introduce then cool-season grass varieties, warm-season grasses are much easier and cheaper to maintain after they have been established.

The burning of these warm-season grasses is the second primary use of fire. As warm-season grasses age, their growth rates become retarded because of the collection of dead plants and vegetative litter. “Fire allows warm-season grasses to convert dead plant material to ash,” Gaska explained. “This cleans and rejuvenates the prairie.” As a management tool, fire is extremely beneficial because it effectively removes litter buildup, returns nutrients to the soil, stimulates new growth and creates openings in the cover, which wildlife also need.

The third primary use of fire is to remove trees and shrubs. Fire can be used to “top-kill” undesirable tree species to preserve an existing prairie as well as to return an area to grass if that area has been overrun with unwanted saplings and shrubs. Invasive tree species that are generally targeted for removal are those that offer little benefit to wildlife, including elm, maple and boxelder.

The specific purpose for which a fire is prescribed has a great deal of impact on the planning process and execution of the burn.

“Three to five-year burning plans are usually established for an area,” Gaska said. “Burns are generally conducted in mosaic with scheduled rotation so that the most efficient use of the land area can be established for wildlife.”

THE CONCERNS

There is certainly more to the process than just burning off dead grass. The fact is that ring-necked pheasants may be both positively and negatively affected by the occurrence of fire in their habitat. Of primary concern is the ready availability of a variety of cover types. Critical nesting, brooding, loafing, roosting and escape cover is lost in a newly burned field, and the area offers no advantages to pheasants until the following year.

Because of this concern, cover must be evaluated to be certain that performing a burn will not inadvertently destroy those bird populations you initially intended to enhance. This is the main reason why rotational burning in mosaics is used – to ensure that adequate cover remains for pheasant use while the burn area rejuvenates itself.

Ring-necked pheasants need particular types of cover for different phases of their life cycles. These types of cover must be interspersed so they are available throughout the year.

Nesting cover is particularly important in early spring since the first clutches and broods are generally larger than later ones. The best nesting cover is undisturbed plant material left over from the previous year. This material is dense enough to prevent detection by predators that might be searching for nest and incubating hens.

Brood cover must be appropriate for concealment of the hen and her chicks, while it also must provide abundant insects for the young to feed upon. As the chicks age, the necessity for dense cover diminishes, and areas of medium-density vegetation become more commonly used.

Vegetation that is suitable for escape is preferred during spring and summer as loafing cover. Those areas that are most favored include brush thickets, shrub rows and tall weed patches, which provide shade on hot days.

Winter loafing cover, on the other hand, should contain woody vegetation, which provides overhead protection rather than the open canopy that is preferred during the summer. The most important aspect of winter cover is its proximity to food sources. A variety of research studies indicate that cover beyond one mile from food is seldom used, and in fact, winter travel for food sources rarely exceed one-quarter mile.

Pheasants will eat a wide variety of animal and plant foods. As chicks, they dine almost exclusively on insects to provide the protein and other nutrients most needed for early development. Grasshoppers, crickets and ants are the most common preference.

As the birds age, they will adapt to a diet that is heavy in waste grains and seeds. Additionally, ringnecks will eat acorns, buds and the soft parts of herbaceous vegetation, as well as fleshy fruits, insects and, occasionally, snakes and small rodents.

The best burn plans take into account the need for all these cover types and food requirements. Providing as many of the essentials as possible will increase the likelihood that pheasants will not only inhabit the property, but that they will thrive on it as well.

THE MANAGEMENT

Planning for a burn also revolves around the responsibility of fire management. An uncontrolled fire can be a ravaging beast that delivers immense destruction. Land managers learned again this past summer about the need for planning and preparation as fires raged across many of our Western states. Some of those fires were planned for habitat rejuvenation, but in their execution they became severe liabilities, the extent of which we may not discover for many years.

Although the dynamics of fire in the Western states are very different from those experienced from the Great Plains eastward, the need for planning and caution is no less important. Fire can be a valuable tool if used in the right place and at the right time. But, like any tool, it is most effective in well-trained and experienced hands.

The decision by Pheasants Forever to use fire for any habitat rejuvenation project starts with a site evaluation. Foremost is the determination of whether or not fire is the best treatment option for each individual situation. After that decision is made, a plethora of technical, logistical and safety issues come into play.

The specific objectives of a burn influences the time of the year in which it can, and should, take place. For example, if the purpose of a burn is to kill encroaching shrubs and trees, it will be most effective to conduct the burn in late spring or early summer to allow the target plants an opportunity to grow to a stage in which they are most vulnerable to fire.

On the other hand, if the purpose of the burn is simply to convert cover from one grass type to another, waiting too late in the spring may jeopardize nests that have already been established or broods that may be using the grass as cover. This particular situation calls for the burn to be conducted in early spring before nesting activities take place.

The specific location of a potential burn site is also critical to a number of planning concerns. The availability of firebreaks is crucial for containing a fire within its prescribed area. Firebreaks are either natural or manmade barriers that are intended to inhibit the spread of flames. Examples of firebreaks include roads, creeks and tilled fields. In the absence of natural firebreaks, temporary barriers can be created by mowing, blacklining or similar means.

A corresponding issue is that of encroachment on adjoining properties. It seems obvious that you would want neither to burn a neighbor“s barn nor to torch an entire housing subdivision, yet those things have been known to happen in recent history. In areas where burns are desired near structures, it is imperative that special precautions be taken.

Grass fires can also create huge quantities of smoke and thus generate a safety concern if the burn area is near a major roadway or airport. Special notifications may need to be made, and in some cases the timing of the burn may need to be coordinated with other agencies. Under all circumstances, law enforcement and firefighting agencies should be notified of any controlled burn that will be set within their respective jurisdictions. Not only is this a good public relations policy, but it may also provide for assistance if special needs are found to exist.

Be certain to check for local requirements for burn permits or other legal prerequisites for conducting a controlled burn.

MANPOWER NEEDED

In the case of staffing for a prescription burn, there is no such thing as “overkill”. Although a perfect burn may only require the services of a handful of well-equipped and experienced people, that same fire can do the unexpected and jump prescription boundaries, and it can turn into a disaster if the staffing component is not large enough. Always plan for more people than you need.

If experienced personnel are not available, planning should also include scheduled training exercises for those workers who will be on site during any burn. This training should include an explanation of the biological reasons for the burn, basic wildfire fighting techniques, instruction in filling and using backpack water tanks, mobile water pump operation, operation of ATVs with pumper units when available and the proper technique for using rakes, shovels and flappers, as well as any other equipment you may have available for use on your particular site.

Other training should also cover criteria for planning burns and burning techniques, as well as backfire theories and use. The bottom line is that if you are more prepared when going into a burn situation, it will be less likely for a problem to arise that you cannot control. Specific objectives, thorough planning and sound execution of those plans will lead to a successful prescription burn and improved wildlife habitat.

Pheasants Forever has learned to use fire as a constructive tool.

“There will be a continued growth in the use of fire for management purposes,” Gaska said. “Because it is relatively cheap to use, easy to handle in its application and very beneficial in terms of overall effectiveness.”

The larger question is that of resources.

“Our habitat needs generally far exceed the dollars available,” Gaska explained. “We also need more sportsmen to become involved with Pheasants Forever by becoming members.”

As wild places become scarcer in the future, the secret to wildlife survival will be maintaining quality in the habitat that remains. As sportsmen and women, it will be up to us to maintain the legend of “the Phoenix” – from the ashes of our fires can rise the future of pheasants.

Editor’s note: For more information about Pheasants Forever projects and membership write to Pheasants Forever National Headquarters, 1783 Buerkle Circle, St. Paul, MN 55110; phone: (651)773-2000; fax: (651)773-5500; E-mail: pf@pheasantsforever.org; Web site: http://www.pheasantsforever.org.