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Benefits of the burn: Does the good outweigh the bad?

Trail Kreitzer with a 2013 mule deer from a burned area
This buck was taken in a burned area in 2013. Photo credit: Trail Kreitzer

I remember sitting on the back porch on a hot dry July evening in the late 1990s, watching a wild fire come over the ridge of the mountain range just to the west of my hometown in southern Utah. At the time, I had no idea of what that burn would, or could, do to the landscape or how it would become the primary contributor to many of my fondest hunting memories. Since then, understanding fire, fire rehab and the benefits of fire have become a major part of my profession and often the focal point of my scouting and hunting efforts.

Fire has gotten a bad rap over the past 70 years and is still largely viewed and referred to as a detriment to the landscape, but is fire always bad for the landscape? And is it detrimental to the big game species that drive many of our hunting passions?

Contrary to the common conception that fire is a destroyer of the natural environment, in the right locations, the opposite is actually true. Burning can enhance the health of an ecosystem and can certainly improve big game habitat and hunting opportunities. Many of our western ecosystems are actually fire dependant, meaning that the effects of fire are essential to the re-growth and regeneration of plants that wildlife rely upon. In addition, the vegetative response to fire can also provide the groceries required to grow trophy-sized antlers, but more on that later.

What does fire actually do to a landscape

Fire's benefits to wildlife
Photo credit: Tyler Kreitzer

Fire is used to remove dead and decaying vegetation from the landscape so that sunlight and water resources can reach the ground. In addition, nitrogen and nutrients from burned woody vegetation are released back into the soil in the form of mineral rich ash. The combination of nutrient charged soils and newly available sunlight and water resources provide the perfect environment for new plant growth, which often begins very quickly after a fire. Post burn, the change or sequences of vegetation development over time is called succession. The normal succession of plant communities that follow a fire are grass-forb, which is followed by shrubland that transitions to saplings and shrubs followed by pole-size trees. These trees become a mature forest, which eventually leads to an old-growth forest. Early successional habitats, which are the first to establish after a disturbance, are typically dominated by forb, grass and young shrub production. Deer and elk thrive in early succession habitats.

Mule deer, elk, diet and fire

Trail Kreitzer with a 2012 mule deer from a burned area
Trail's 2012 mule deer from a burned area. Photo credit: Trail Kreitzer

Mule deer have relatively small stomachs in comparison to actual body size, which requires them to be much more specialized in what they consume. They must select only the most nutritious plants and specific portions of plants. Research suggests that during the fawn and antler production months of May, June and July, the majority of a mule deer’s diet is made up of forbs: flowering broad leaf herbaceous plants that are not graminoids (grasses, sedges, rushes). Examples include dandelion, mountain bluebell, lupine, clover and globemallow. Browse species rank second with grass-like plants making up a smaller portion of their diets during these summer months. A seasonal diet change occurs in the fall and winter months as browse utilization increases throughout the winter and deer tend to consume different plants like bitterbrush, sagebrush and mahogany. 

During the spring months of March and April, grass species green up quickly and become a more significant portion of their diet. Overall, across all seasonal range, forage quality is controlled by digestibility, protein content, mineral content and plant defense. Protein, phosphorus and other desirable nutrients decrease as plants mature. Lignin, toxins and other non-digestible components increase with maturity. This is where fire and the associated benefits factor in. Mule deer will select for high quality forage and, generally, the highest quality forage is made available through succession resetting catalysts like fire. In particular, high elevation burning in mule deer summer range where precipitation levels are higher and forb and young shrub response is good can be especially beneficial. Burns in low elevation winter ranges can be great, but may take many years to recover the browse species that will attract wintering mule deer.

Glassing a burned area
Glassing a burned area. Photo credit: Trail Kreitzer 

Elk differ some and are often referred to as more of a generalist than specialist. Where mule deer must focus their feeding efforts on the most desirable and nutrient rich plants, elk can eat larger amounts of less quality forage. Yet, similar to mule deer, or any other ungulate, elk are more likely to select for more palatable, nutrient rich plants. Generally speaking, primary foods in the spring and summer consist of grasses, sedges and early forbs. As summer progresses, more forbs and woody browse, such as shrub twigs and branches are consumed. Newly generating aspen shoots and leaves can make up a significant portion of an elk’s summer diet. Dry grasses and browse are consumed heavily through the fall and winter. Burns occurring in higher elevation range can be magnets for summering elk. The high quality grasses, forbs and flush of aspen make great elk forage.

Elk wallows in old burn

Elk wallows in burned area. Photo credit: Trail Kreitzer

Elk transitioning into fall and winter habitats are also drawn into burned areas at mid and lower elevations because of available dry grasses as well as the south facing slopes that are often void of snow due to the sun reaching now bared off ground. A good example of this is the nearly 80,000-acre Sanford fire that burned across the Mount Dutton Unit in southern Utah in 2002. The fire burned portions of the western face of the unit before rolling up and over the east side where it burned several large drainages running from the highest elevations of the unit down nearly to the valley floor in the east. The long southeast facing burned ridges responded with grass and forb production while aspen regeneration exploded through canyon bottoms and north facing slopes. Since then, wintering elk populations have significantly increased on this unit. Recent studies even suggest that a large portion of the wintering elk herd are migrating from surrounding units to winter on this newly created quality habitat.

Antler growth and fire

Velvet bull elk on regrowth from a burn
Bull elk feeding on burn regrowth. Photo credit: Tyler Kreitzer

Trophy antler growth is made up of the combination of three factors; age, genetics and nutrition. Age and genetics are fairly straight forward. A buck or bull has to live long enough to reach his genetic potential, whatever that may be. But what about the relationship between nutrition and antler growth? Antler production is an energy expensive task and antler size often reflects the nutrition of the deer. Velvet growing antlers are high in water and low in dry matter content. The composition of the dry matter portion during this stage is approximately 80% protein and 20% calcium and phosphorus. Although research into the effects of varied or increased mineral levels on antler size is not conclusive, it appears that protein, calcium and phosphorus levels are known to be important to antler development. One could hypothesize that quality forage in these minerals would result in a healthier animal that is more likely to reach his age and genetic potential. As noted, previously burned areas with a younger age class of plants and forage is most likely higher in protein and other nutrients. Additionally, it appears that in the years following a fire, trophy animals begin to appear. 

Scouting for burned areas

Burned mountainside habitat
Photo credit: Tyler Kreitzer

Locating a burned area takes a little work. A visit or call to the local federal or state land management agencies can help you gain valuable information. Ask to talk to the fuels program manager, or an engine crew lead, smokejumper or a natural resources specialist. Nearly all of these individuals will know the locations of past, present and future prescribed burns. They will also know if fire rehabilitation efforts are planned. Be prepared to describe the type of fire you are looking for as well as the wildlife species and time of year you will be hunting. This information will help them assist you in pinpointing the areas to focus on. Also, make sure that you talk to the local state habitat and wildlife biologists about any burns that may be of interest. For example, the Utah Division of Wildlife employs habitat biologists that work with federal agencies to complete fire rehabilitation projects. These biologists have good working knowledge of fires, past and present, and how they relate to wildlife that occupy these areas.

Burn chaining habitat project
Creating better habitat after a burn with chaining. Photo credit: Trail Kreitzer 

In addition to talking to agency personnel, you can find a lot of information about fire from your desk. The following links will give you a great starting point for researching burned areas and fire information.

State fire information breakdown

New MexicoColoradoWyoming
MontanaIdahoGeneral Active Fire Map

If you are planning to hunt Utah this year, or hope to in the future, the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative website has information about habitat restoration projects that have been completed over the past ten years. If you click on the Projects link then click on View Projects, you can explore proposed, current and completed projects. A click into the Completed Projects link will open a “Filter Search” option in the lower left corner. This allows you to filter by title, region, etc. Check out the different options. Each project will contain a completion report that identifies dates, methods and seed mix as well as an interactive map. This information is highly valuable when beginning to scout a new area.

Locating animals in burned areas

Trail Kreitzer with a 2010 bull elk from a burned area
Trail Kreitzer with a 2010 bull elk from a burned area. Photo credit: Trail Kreitzer

Deer and elk need a variety of resources to thrive: shelter, water, space and food. These resources are often found on the borders of two or more plant communities. Preferred “edge” habitat is often created by fire that converts the landscape into a mosaic of burned and unburned pockets. A mosaic of burned acres and habitat types is more beneficial and attractive to big game than one large burn or monoculture. When I start scouting a new unit, one of the first things I do is search for fire history of the unit. The resources listed in the links in the “Scouting For Burned Areas” is a great place to start. Once I have the general location of burn areas, I like to evaluate the elevation, terrain and age of the burn. 

The permit I have and the timing of the hunt will also help me determine if a burned area may or may not be productive. For example, this year I have a late season archery elk tag. In what I know of post rut elk behavior, big mature bulls are likely to pull off into some of the steepest deepest remote pockets to recover. Primary food sources are likely to be browse and grasses which should be plentiful on ridgetops and south/southeast facing slopes. Utilizing the goHUNT map features in the unit profiles and Google Earth, I have located areas that have burned in recent years adjacent to thick bedding cover located in remote areas that are likely to hold a late season bull. This is where I plan to start my scouting efforts. When scouting, I am particularly interested in fires that occurred within the past two to 20 years. This timeframe gives the plants time to respond and still be very productive. Again, fires that meander through a landscape that provide a combination of age class, structure and diversity of species should be given more attention.

Burned area on Google Earth
Example of a burned landscape with a mosaic of remaining old growth pine (outlined areas) for cover/bedding areas and burned areas. Light green depicts the flush of aspen regeneration that is a good food source and hiding cover.

As a visual, the following Google Earth picture depicts the fire that I described in the introduction that burned in the late 1990s. Please note that there is a combination of remaining old growth conifer timber pockets, open sagebrush/grass meadows, mature aspen stands and burned stringers. The elevation range of the burned acres runs from nearly 7,000 to 10,000 feet. That range, coupled with the habitat type, tells me that it would definitely be worth scouting and hunting for early season archery deer and elk along with late season elk and even deer, depending on the weather. This area contains everything a buck or bull needs to survive and mature to trophy age.

Tips on scouting and hunting burned areas

Todd Kreitzer with a 2009 bull elk from a burned area
Another great bull elk taken in a burned area. This bull was taken by Todd Kreitzer in 2009. Photo credit: Trail Kreitzer
  • Focus on burned areas adjacent to other habitat requirements: bedding/thermal cover and water.
  • Focus on burned areas that are two to 20 years old. This will give the vegetation time to respond and will still be productive.
  • Burned areas often offer great glassing opportunities. Get the best glass you can afford along with a tripod and locate good vantage points. Put time in behind your glass!
  • Evaluate the species diet, seasonal behavior and time of year you are hunting. For early season archery hunts, look for high elevation recent burns that are rich in forbs, grasses and new shrubs. For late season hunts, look for lower elevation rehabilitated burns that offer maturing browse species, grasses and more cover.
  • Spot and stalk hunting is very effective in burned areas because they are more open and easier to glass. Bedding areas are often patchy old growth timber pockets within the burned areas. Watch a buck or a bull bed and attempt a stalk if you can see them or anticipate the direction he will feed and try to ambush.
  • The goHUNT INSIDER mapping tools on the unit profiles and Google Earth can be very effective in finding and evaluating burned areas.
  • Talk to your local U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management fire specialists and fire fighters. Some of the best hunters I know are wildland firefighters that know the fire history, terrain and wildlife movements of any given area. They are generally really nice down-to-earth guys that offer a wealth of information.
  • Ask your local agency professionals about fire rehab efforts. Were burned areas reseeded? With what species? When? Were the acres chained or otherwise manipulated? Understanding this level of detail can provide an idea of how productive a burned area may be or how long it may take to recover.


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