Using Prescribed Fire to Enhance Habitat for White-tailed Deer

Prescribed fire is an excellent tool to stimulate and maintain forage and cover for white-tailed deer. Browse (the leaves and twigs of woody species) and forbs (broadleaf herbaceous plants) dominate the whitetails’ diet throughout their range, and fire can be used to increase available nutrition from these plants in woods and fields. Fire can also be used to maintain relatively dense cover before openness and visibility increase as a result of over-shading and competition.

Frequency of Fire

Forb production is highest in early successional stages where sunlight is not limited. In the eastern US, where rainfall exceeds 30 inches per year, woody species invade post-disturbance and typically dominate within 7 – 10 years, limiting forage available for white-tailed deer. Burning on a 3 – 7-year fire-return interval maintains early successional vegetation, which often provides 2,000 – 6,000 pounds (dry matter) of desirable forage per acre during spring and summer. This forage production rivals that of warm-season food plots and can be maintained at a fraction of the cost of food plots. The exact fire-return interval necessary varies by site and year. When managing for deer, it is desirable to burn when woody encroachment begins to limit forage production. This interval provides not only food, but attractive bedding cover as well.


Season of Burn

The fire-return interval influences vegetation composition and structure more than any other factor. However, timing of burning can also influence vegetation composition and associated structure. Within a given fire-return interval, burning during the dormant season sets back vegetation structure, but often does not change vegetation composition appreciably. Most woody species readily re-sprout following fire in any season. Burning during the growing season (especially late growing season) tends to decrease woody species and promote increased herbaceous coverage. Thus, the necessary fire-return interval to maintain the same vegetation structure and composition may be a year or 2 less following dormant-season fire than growing-season fire. Late growing season fire may encourage more forbs in areas where grasses represent >70% coverage. Increased forb coverage (>30 percent groundcover) is desirable when managing for deer. Browse and/or forbs should comprise 30 – 70% of the groundcover. Grasses are not desirable for deer forage, but some grass coverage provides fine fuel and facilitates burning.Both dormant- and growing-season fire have a place when managing for white-tailed deer. Although various browse species are selected over others by whitetails, browse re-sprouting following burning is highly nutritious. Young growth of any plant is more nutritious, more palatable, and selected by deer over older growth because it is more digestible. Nonetheless, as the growing season progresses and plants mature, forage quality declines.

Animal Nutrition

Fire can also be used in woods and woodlands to increase available nutrition and cover for white-tailed deer. However, burning in closed-canopy forests will do little to improve browse availability or fawning cover. Thus, it is important to open the canopy to allow at least 20 – 30% sunlight into the stand prior to burning. Retention cutting, thinning, and shelterwood harvests are often used to reduce canopy closure and enable more sunlight to enter the stand. Forage production (browse and forbs) in the understory of a closed-canopy forest usually averages 25 – 100 pounds (dry wt) per acre. With additional sunlight, forage production is increased to 700 – 1,000 pounds (dry wt) per acre. It is important to note these estimates only include plants commonly eaten by white-tailed deer, not total biomass. This flush of new vegetation not only increases nutritional carrying capacity, but also can help increase fawn survival by enhancing cover. The soft mast (such as blackberry and blueberry) response following fire also provides increased nutrition for deer.

If burning the woods may involve a little more than what it’s worth, consider this: Burning 4 acres of woods typically provides as much warm-season forage as 1 acre of soybeans. The increased forage following burning will persist at least 3 – 5 years, whereas warm-season food plots have to be planted each year. Any serious deer manager cannot afford to not consider using prescribed fire.

Utilizing Prescribed Fire to Create “Food Plots”

Land managers often wish to plant food plots to increase forage or serve as an attractant for wildlife. At times this may be a beneficial practice, particularly as an attractant for hunting.  An alternative is to use prescribed fire to stimulate food producing native plants. Depending on the soil type, location, season of year, and precipitation, prescribed fires often stimulate plants that are utilized by wildlife.

Growing Season Fire

Growing season fires can be especially productive for creating food plots for mourning dove hunting, this favors several species of desirable food plants such as snow-on-the-mountain, croton or dove weed, and sunflower, as well as creates ample bare ground to allow doves to forage. These plants are also desirable for Northern bobwhite, ring-necked pheasant, and wild turkey.  Additionally, late summer or early fall fires reduce grass litter going into the dormant season which can make certain important cool season plants more accessible. Scribner’s panicum, which is important winter deer forage in many areas, is a good example. This plant is commonly foraged on by white-tailed deer during the winter in areas that were burned during the previous growing-season.

Dormant Season Fire

Dormant season fires can be equally important.  Wild turkey in particular are attracted to areas that were burned in later winter or early spring as they have actively growing grasses for the first few weeks following the fire.  Later as annual forbs (broadleaf herbaceous plants) increase in abundance the area become important for insect production for hens and poults. These same forbs will have seeds later in the summer and into the fall that wild turkey feed on.  White-tailed deer will utilize many of these same forbs as forage.  Further, burned areas that contain woody plants will have abundant resprouts that offer excellent browse for white-tailed deer.  Plants such as greenbrier, elm, and blackberry are particularly attractive following a fire.

Final Considerations

While, these native “food plots” may not produce the quantity of forage per acre that a cultivated plot would, the cost is much less per acre, thus many more acres can be treated maximizing the benefit to wildlife. Land managers will not see the same results from year to year or place to place as weather and soil differences will influence the outcomes. Experimentation with various seasons of burns on a particular property will provide the manager guidance as to how to increase the attractiveness of a site to target wildlife. The important thing to remember is that you can successfully manage for wildlife without planting anything on your property. This requires an understanding of how to manipulate native plants with disturbances such as fire.  To be successful with this type of management, it is imperative to learn to identify key plants that wildlife utilize.

Prescribed fire can create natural food plots at little cost to the landowner. These white-tailed deer are concentrated on a fire that was conducted in July, the photo was taken the following January. The deer are feeding on the winter rosettes of Scribner’s panicum which is a native cool season perennial grass.