Burning for Big Game

CR 657
Louis C. Bender
College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, New Mexico State University (Print Friendly PDF)

Author: Louis C. Bender, Research Scientist (Wildlife), Department of Extension Animal Sciences and Natural Resources, New Mexico State University.

Prescribed burning is a management tool that is increasingly used to alter the composition and structure of vegetation on public and private lands in New Mexico. Burning is frequently prescribed to increase habitat quality for big game species, such as mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), elk (Cervus elaphus), and pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), and can be an economically viable alternative to more costly management practices, such as forage plots or feeding, for increasing the quality of wildlife habitat and economics of wildlife enterprises. However, there are significant differences between burning to benefit big game and their habitat and burning for other ecological factors, such as brush control, mimicking "natural" fire regimes, or urban-interface clearing. Optimal burning prescriptions for big game habitat differ from other burning prescriptions in terms of season of burn, intensity of burn, and other factors. This results in many burns, even if conducted to benefit big game, actually having fewer positive benefits than they could have. Hence, it is important to understand how to burn to maximize benefits for big game.

Prescribed burns for big game are most common in conifer forests and woodlands, but are also valuable in grasslands and shrublands. The effects of fire vary with the intensity and timing of the burn (Whelan, 1995; Arno and Allison-Bunnell, 2002). For managing big game habitat, most prescribed fire is low-intensity because of the danger of losing control of a high-intensity crown fire (Whelan, 1995; Lutz et al., 2003; Fulé et al., 2004) and because cooler fires are promoted during optimal burning periods. Fire can have several major effects on wildlife habitat; the following sections generalize the effects of fire on big game habitat.

Community structure. Fire has its greatest impact on the structure of plant communities, usually by retarding succession. It does this (1) by shifting communities from tree-dominated overstory to grass/forb or shrub communities (Whelan, 1995) and (2) by eliminating dead aboveground biomass (Hobbs and Spowart, 1984). For example, fire can increase the quality of big game diets to a much greater extent than gains derived from increased nutrients in forages because it removes dead plant material and thus allows animals access to newly emergent forages in early phenological states (i.e., high in cell-soluble nutrients) (Hobbs and Spowart, 1984).

Plant biomass. Biomass increases after burning due to a combination of fertilization and partial to full opening of the tree or shrub overstory (Jones and DeByle, 1985; Whelan, 1995).

Green-up. Fire tends to speed spring green-up of vegetation, at least in the first year. This occurs because the blackened ash left after burning warms in the sun, creating a warmer microclimate for plants to germinate or initiate growth (Hobbs and Spowart, 1984).

Plant composition. Fire can change the composition of plant communities depending upon the intensity and frequency of burning (Whelan, 1995). Intense fires can eliminate entire overstory tree communities, while frequent low-intensity fires can change plant composition by eliminating less fire-tolerant species (shrubs, which store reserves above ground) in favor of more fire-tolerant species (perennial grasses, which store reserves below ground) (Jones and DeByle, 1985; Whelan, 1995). In grasslands, frequent fire can also cause species shifts away from perennial grasses to forbs (Ford and McPherson, 1996). Forbs can also be preferentially increased in abundance by spring fires as compared to burning in other seasons (Brewer and Platt, 1994).

Fertilization and nutrients. Increases in understory biomass, improvement of diet quality beyond levels attributable to increased forage quality alone (Hobbs and Spowart, 1984), and effects on nutritional quality of plants are the three principal benefits of fire for big game. The primary effect of fire on nutrients is in protein levels, and is caused by freeing the nitrogen (N) bound in litter, especially the high carbon:nitrogen ratio (C:N) litter of conifer-dominated communities. In general, fire increases protein levels approximately 25%, although this can range as high as 145% (L. Bender, unpublished data). Further, the effects of fire on protein can vary with several factors, including:

  • Plant species. In general, grasses show the least response to fire, and shrubs the greatest. This is because grasses tend to store nutrients below ground, so burning the cured above-ground biomass frees few nutrients. Conversely, shrubs maintain much of their live tissue above ground, so burning potentially frees many more nutrients
  • N content of soils. If soils are high in N, gains from burning will be less. For vegetation types present in New Mexico, the greatest nutrient gains would occur in conifer-dominated systems (piñon-juniper and montane conifer) because of the high C:N ratio of their litter and consequent slow decomposition rates.

  • Time since burn. Protein (and other nutrient) gains from burning are relatively short-term, generally lasting only 1 to 2 years. After 3 to 5 years, there is usually no detectable difference. However, the total forage biomass response to burning lasts significantly longer, and only begins to change as the overstory canopy closes.
  • Season of burn. Prescribed burns (or any other management actions) should provide needed nutrients when required by the target species. The season of burn is important because different seasons result in different times of increased protein levels in forage. In general, the relationships between season of burn and protein levels in plants are as follows (Einarsen, 1946; DeWitt and Derby, 1955; Grelen and Epps, 1967; Dills, 1970; Hobbs and Spowart, 1984).
  • Winter burns. Result in protein increases in early spring; protein levels decline throughout the summer.
  • Spring burns. Result in protein increase in late spring and early summer; protein levels decline throughout mid- and late summer.
  • Summer burns. Result in a large increase in protein in mid-summer followed by a rapid decline in late summer.
  • Autumn burns. Generally result in little response because plants have little time to make a growth response; also poses the greatest threat of loss of nutrients due to runoff, leaching, and windblow because of the length of exposure before plants initiate growth in early spring.

Fire can also affect other nutrients. Fire tends to decrease crude fiber of plants, thus increasing digestibility. Because digestibility and digestible energy are synonymous, fire therefore results in increased energy available, both within plants (because of increased digestibility) and overall (because of increased plant biomass) (Edwards et al., 2004). Gains in digestibility tend to be longer lived than protein gains, lasting as long as 10 years or until significant competition begins to cause declines in understory biomass. Fire has variable effects on mineral levels of forages, with spring burns tending to increase mineral levels and burns in other seasons having little effect. Fire has a small effect on fat levels (ether extracts) of plants; grasses in general tend to show increased ether extracts after burning.

For big game, the key periods of energy, mineral, and especially protein needs are late spring and summer, corresponding with the last trimester of gestation, lactation, and antler growth (Verme and Ullrey, 1984; Wakeling and Bender, 2003). During this period, demands for both protein and energy are greatest to invest in the growing fetus and to maintain lean muscle tissue or accumulate fat in the female. High protein content in milk is critical for rapid growth of juveniles (Landete-Castilljos et al., 2003) and maintenance of female body mass, both of which are critical for the survival of fawns and adults (Bender et al., 2007; Lomas and Bender, 2007; Hoenes, 2008). Similarly, growing antlers are more than 80% protein, so bucks and bulls require a minimum of 16%, and ideally more than 20%, protein in their diets during the primary antler growth period from late April through early September (Bender, 2011). Late winter and spring burns (generally March to April, depending on the location in New Mexico) can provide a critical protein flush during this period, thereby increasing survival, productivity, and performance of big game. Additionally, spring burns can also increase mineral content of forages, providing minerals during the period of rapid antler development in males (Bender, 2011). Big game will also consume ash following a burn, which provides a further, direct source of minerals in their diets.

Later burns, as are typical of public lands in New Mexico (i.e., June to August), can still increase biomass of forage for big game, but much of the beneficial effects of burning on nutrient content and rapid green-up of forage are lost. Because the freeing of nutrients is probably the most important advantage of fire over mechanical and herbicidal treatments for big game, managers should burn early to maximize nutrient benefits if big game habitat is the primary reason for prescribed burns. Additionally, late winter and spring burns are cooler than later burns, resulting in less mortality of shrubs and remaining tree overstory, which maintains critical forages (shrubs) and cover components (trees) while increasing quality and quantity of forages (Figure 1). Thus, burns aimed at increasing nutritional quality of big game ranges should be timed for late winter or early spring to increase availability of key nutrients for big game productivity at the critical time they are required.

Fig. 1: Photograph of a herbaceous burn on short grassland.

Figure 1. Thorough herbaceous burn in short grassland. Burning in late winter will encourage production of forbs, which are important big game foods. Perennial grasses will remain, but their coverage will be decreased 10 to 15% to open space for forbs. This relatively cool burn maintained the juniper at the crest of the hill as cover.

The exact fire behavior and burn plan are highly dependent on the local vegetation and topography, and thus need to be developed on a site-specific basis. In general, low humidity and a 5 to 10 mph wind provide ideal burning characteristics with 1 to 2 ft flame lengths. Fire intensity, and thus flame lengths, need to be higher if a significant kill of overstory trees is a management objective (Figure 2). Headfires (burning in the direction the wind is blowing) will provide a fast, patchy burn that is ideal for minimizing mortality of woody shrubs and creating a mosaic of burned and unburned patches, which is often optimal for big game habitat (Figure 3). Burning across the wind (flankfire) or into the wind (backfire) results in progressively slower, hotter, and less patchy burns. These burns will usually result in increased shrub and tree mortality. Similarly, upslope burns are usually faster and patchier than downslope burns. Managers thus need to consider plant biomass (fuel load), topography, desired vegetation changes (for example, high or low shrub kill), and weather when planning their burns for big game habitat (Figure 4). Assistance in fire planning is available from the Cooperative Extension Service as well as county, state, and federal land management agencies.

Fig. 2: Photograph of an intense burn on piñon-juniper woodland.

Figure 2. Even late winter burns in March can generate long flame lengths and intense fire. Managers need to tailor fire intensity to burn objectives—the greater the intensity, the higher the kill of woody species, which is counterproductive for many big game burns.

Fig. 3: Photograph of a patchy, late winter burn on short grassland.

Figure 3. Late winter burns are frequently patchy, resulting in a mosaic of burned and unburned areas. This increases the diversity of the rangeland and the variety of forage available to big game and livestock.

Fig. 4: Photograph of a low-intensity fire on piñon-juniper and okabrush woodland

Figure 4. A good big game burn in open piñon-juniper and oakbrush. The herbaceous layer is mostly burned but some patches remain, some of the oakbrush is topkilled and will re-sprout, and much of the scattered piñon-juniper will survive.

Burning Considerations in Selected Plant Communities

Some general considerations for burning to promote big game habitat in the more common plant communities of New Mexico are given in the following sections.

Piñon (Pinus edulis)-juniper (Juniperus spp.) woodland. Most forage benefits for big game in piñon-juniper come from increasing forage biomass by opening the piñon-juniper overstory (Van Hooser et al., 1993), but changes in big game use following mechanical manipulation only (thinning, cabling, chaining, etc.) have been mixed (Howard et al., 1987). In contrast, big game consistently show positive responses to burning piñon-juniper (Greenwood et al., 1999; Erskine and Goodrich, 1999). This is because conifer-dominated communities have litter with a high C:N ratio that results in slow rates of decomposition since microbial decomposers are limited by a lack of N to build microbial protein (i.e., bodies) (Miller et al., 1979). Consequently, most conifer systems are nutrient deficient because most nutrients, especially N, are tied up in the trees or litter. Fire, by converting litter and tree biomass to ash, frees nutrients and makes them available to understory grasses, forbs, and shrubs (Miller et al., 1979; White, 1994; Whelan, 1995), increasing forage quality. Along with opening the overstory, the combination of mineral soil, high nutrient availability, and sunlight provides ideal conditions for establishment of shade-intolerant species (Whelan, 1995; Arno and Allison-Bunnell, 2002; Schoennagel et al., 2004), which includes most preferred forages of big game.

Two important considerations in burning piñon-juniper are frequency of burning and intensity of burning. Longer fire intervals, on the range of 8 to 12 years, favor the establishment of shrubs in the understory. Conversely, shorter intervals of 3 to 5 years can eliminate shrubs and favor grasses and forbs. For big game species, such as deer and pronghorn that require the highest quality diets, shrubs are critical for maintaining adult survival in areas characterized by frequent drought such as most of New Mexico (Bender et al., in press). In these cases, longer fire intervals should be favored to maintain and enhance shrub communities. Similarly, smaller big game species such as mule deer depend on significant hiding cover, and all big game will use overstory thermal cover in New Mexico (Hoenes, 2008). Consequently, it is not desirable to eliminate all overstory piñon-juniper (or even a substantial portion of it in certain areas), so late winter to early spring fires that limit mortality of residual trees should be used to maintain cover as well as to maximize nutrient benefits of burning.

Montane conifer. Overstory canopy coverage is similarly the single most important variable in determining the biomass and composition of understory communities in montane conifer types (Pieper, 1990; Canham et al., 1994; Thomas et al., 1999). Fire can work in combination with thinning to greatly enhance the quantity and quality of understory forage in montane conifer types (Oswald and Covington, 1983; Covington et al., 1997). The effects of fire on forage are identical to those described under piñon-juniper, except that understory responses tend to be greater because montane conifer tends to have greater canopy coverage and occurs in more mesic (higher moisture level) sites, providing more water for understory response. Thinning and prescribed burning have consistently resulted in significant increases in elk and deer use of montane stands (Lowe et al., 1978; Roberts and Tiller, 1985; Crouch, 1986). Burn intervals need to be adjusted as described under piñon-juniper to favor shrubs or grasses, depending on management goals, but burning intervals in montane conifer should be at the shorter end of the ranges listed, whereas most piñon-juniper sites should be burned at the longer intervals in the ranges listed. Residual overstory trees also suffer less mortality than residual piñon-juniper during follow-up burns.

Aspen (Populus tremuloides). In higher-elevation mesic sites in New Mexico, remnant aspen stands provide extremely high-quality big game habitat. Aspen is shade-intolerant, so regeneration requires complete removal of the overstory (Bartos, 2001). In the past, this naturally occurred through stand-replacing wildfire, but more recently is a result of patch- or clear-cutting. If stands are cut, aspen regenerates much more vigorously if burned after cutting (Shepherd, 2001) due to near complete elimination of auxins (a class of plant hormone), which inhibit suckering (vegetative regrowth). Also, if a shade-tolerant conifer understory is present in mature aspen stands, conifers need to be killed by cutting or burning to regenerate aspen (Patton and Jones, 1977). Aspen reproduces poorly (if at all) from seed in the Southwest because of a lack of suitable soil characteristics and adequate moisture (Shepherd, 2001).

Because aspen is short-lived (100 to 125 years), many of the stands that are successionally changing to Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and spruce (Picea spp.)/fir (Abies spp.) communities due to fire exclusion after approximately 1900 are in danger of being lost permanently. Aspen has declined in New Mexico from approximately 1.142 million acres historically to approximately 140,000 acres currently (Bartos, 2001). While burning can most effectively regenerate aspen, the challenge is treating enough acreage to allow adequate regeneration without losing small treatments to ungulate browsing (Shepherd, 2001). For production of browse for deer and elk, an optimal rotation age is 20 to 30 years for aspen (Patton and Jones, 1977).

Short grasslands. Fire is the predominant force in short grass management (Ford and McPherson, 1996). In general, fire results in a short-term (1 to 3 years) decrease in overall production of short grasslands, although this effect varies with precipitation; if precipitation is normal or above normal, the effect may be absent or last approximately 1 year, but if precipitation is below normal the effect may last for up to 3 years (Launchbaugh, 1964; Wright and Bailey, 1980; Ford and McPherson 1996). Burning increases forb density and diversity in short grasslands (Bailey and Anderson, 1978; Collins and Barber, 1985; Ford and McPherson, 1996), enhancing forage quality for big game, which make limited use of grasses (excluding elk) but forage heavily on forbs when available (Pederson and Harper, 1978; Wakeling and Bender, 2003). For short grasslands, spring burns on a 3 to 5 year interval can provide an ideal balance of forbs and grasses, and along with fertilization effects can significantly enhance big game habitat quality. However, the decrease in perennial grasses may lower grazing capacity for cattle. In desert grasslands, burn intervals are generally much longer and depend on the rate of plant recovery and production following burning.

Fire can reduce woody plant cover (Ford and McPherson, 1996), and because short grasslands often lack cover for species such as mule deer, short grass prairie sites with woody cover (or where woody cover is being established) should be burned with very low intensity spring fires at longer intervals of 8 to 10 years.

Shrublands. Oakbrush (Quercus spp.) and true mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus) are the shrubland vegetation most benefitted by burning in New Mexico, although bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) and sagebrush (Artemisia spp.; most commonly A. tridentata and A. filifolia) can also benefit from burning. Because shrubs store reserves above ground, fire frequencies need to be longer to avoid stressing or eliminating shrubs, and burns should be in dormant seasons to minimize mortality as well as provide the optimal nutritional benefits for big game. In general, burn intervals of 8 to 10 years are ideal for rejuvenating shrublands, as well as minimizing the density of regeneration of sprouting species after fire. With many browse species, re-sprouting after burning can be extremely dense; however, seeding with herbaceous species after burning or using mechanical disturbance between fires can decrease the density of sprouts, resulting in more open stands with a more diverse and productive herbaceous understory (Stevens and Davis, 1985). Such a treatment can greatly enhance the overall quality of these areas for big game.

Oakbrush is the most widely distributed shrub community in New Mexico, and oakbrush is an extremely aggressive re-sprouter from root crowns following burning or other disturbance (Harrington, 1985). Oakbrush should be burned in winter or early spring, which does not harm the clones and encourages re-sprouting; hot summer burns can inhibit regrowth and may kill clones (Harrington, 1985). When rejuvenated by burning, big game use of oakbrush greatly increases (Stevens and Davis, 1985); in contrast to mountain mahogany, oakbrush browse is only moderately palatable, and young shoots and new growth are the most preferred portions of the shrubs, likely because rapidly growing new growth contains fewer tannins (James et al., 1980).

For species such as sagebrush and bitterbrush that are more vulnerable to fire-induced mortality, burning should be limited to dormant season fires, particularly in late winter (Stevens and Monsen, 2004), and fire intervals may need to be extended to 20 years or more, depending on the level of fire-induced mortality. Sagebrush in particular is easily killed by fire, so burned areas should be relatively small, resulting in a mix of sage and herbaceous plants. Fire intervals should be timed to the closing of the sagebrush canopy; ideal cover is less than 50% sagebrush. In areas such as northwestern New Mexico where cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is present, additional actions, such as seeding with desirable grasses and forbs, may be necessary to prevent the burned areas from becoming dominated by this noxious invasive
exotic grass.

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I thank R. Baldwin, University of California Kearney Research Station; J. Boren, New Mexico State University; B. Hoenes, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; and A. Darrow, Mexico Coast Land and Cattle, for reviewing this publication.

Lou Bender is a Research Scientist  (Wildlife) with the Department of  Extension Animal Sciences and Natural Resources at NMSU. He earned his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. His  research and management programs  emphasize ungulate and carnivore management, integrated wildlife and livestock habitat management, and wildlife enterprises in the Southwest and internationally.

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Printed and electronically distributed September 2011, Las Cruces, NM