By: Evan Wheeler, Private Lands Biologist

Early succession plant communities dominated by grasses and forbs provide a critical habitat component for a variety of wildlife species in the Southeastern United States. However, fire suppression efforts, accompanied by land use changes and other factors to be discussed in a later piece covering the decline of longleaf pine forests and associated wildlife species, have led to a drastic decline in the availability of herbaceous-dominated early succession habitat for wildlife. Accordingly, restoration programs and management activities are often focused on increasing habitat quality for wildlife species dependent on herbaceous plant communities and prescribed fire is an integral component of such efforts. Therefore, a drip torch is one of the most important tools for land owners and managers. In this segment of the Georgia Wildlife Federation Private Lands Stewardship Program’s Habitat Management Tools of the Trade, we will cover a selection of applications of prescribed fire that can be implemented using a drip torch.

Prescribed Fire and Longleaf Pine Management:

Frequent, low-intensity fires historically burned throughout the Southeast and were critical for maintaining the vast expanses of longleaf pine forests and associated understory plant communities. These fires played a vital role in clearing ground space for longleaf germination, controlling seedling competition, initiating rapid vertical growth as seedlings exited grass stage, controlling non-longleaf woody competition, and maintaining an herbaceous-dominated understory that was vital for numerous species of wildlife. However, natural fire regimes have been altered and prescribed fires are now paramount in importance for longleaf pine restoration efforts. Applying prescribed fire early in the life of a longleaf stand and frequently throughout the rotation maximizes the extent and duration of availability of quality habitat and reduces need for mechanical and chemical treatments.

Prescribed Fire and Loblolly Pine Management:

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While the primary objective for most loblolly pine stands is often timber production, loblolly stands can be dually managed to provide wildlife habitat. Unlike longleaf pine, fire is generally not applied early in a loblolly rotation because loblolly pines are not as fire-tolerant as longleaf. In addition, canopy closure occurs much more quickly in a loblolly rotation, thus limiting vegetative responses to fire. Therefore, prescribed fire is most commonly applied after the first thinning and beyond. In fact, frequently-burned older loblolly stands that are maintained at lower basal areas (refer to Habitat Management Tools of the Trade: Wedge Prism, 16 April 2020; https://gwf.org/wedgeprism/ ) can provide exceptional upland game bird habitat.

Prescribed Fire and Hardwood Management:

Prescribed fire can also be applied to hardwood stands for woody competition control, promoting herbaceous plants, and promoting hardwood natural regeneration. However, if you are burning for woody competition control such as eliminating sweetgum or privet, it is important to consider the species of hardwoods that are in the canopy. Specifically, a fire intensity necessary to kill competition may also injure preferred canopy trees. Additionally, if you are burning to promote herbaceous vegetation, the vegetative response will be limited by canopy light interception. If there is not sufficient light getting to the forest floor, then herbaceous plants will not respond extensively and canopy reduction may be necessary. We will cover forest stand improvement (including canopy reduction techniques) in a future segment.

For more information on ways to apply prescribed fire on private lands in Georgia and to schedule an AT-NO-COST site visit and property assessment with the GWF biologist, visit https://gwf.org/privatelands/ or call 770-787-7887.

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