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News Prescribed burning for wildlife: An essential land management tool

MassWildlife carried out a record number of burns this year to benefit wildlife and restore habitats.
  • Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
  • MassWildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program

Media Contact for Prescribed burning for wildlife: An essential land management tool

Marion Larson, MassWildlife

Penikese Island burn

MassWildlife reached a new benchmark this year by safely carrying out 14 prescribed burns on over 761 acres of fire-influenced lands within our wildlife management areas (WMAs) across the state. Another 115 acres of municipal conserved lands were treated with prescribed fire thanks to funding from MassWildlife’s Habitat Management Grant Program. These burns, all conducted on lands open to the public, benefit a multitude of plants and wildlife and help restore important grasslands, heathlands, shrublands, and woodlands.

Bringing fire back to the Massachusetts landscape is challenging and requires partnerships at multiple levels of government and the private sector. Prescribed burns require careful planning, permitting, and skillful implementation under specific weather and fuel conditions to meet resource objectives, ensure public safety, and avoid impacts to sensitive resources and the surrounding community. MassWildlife is thankful to our dedicated prescribed burn crew and fire management partners who made this a successful burn season. Those partners include the DCR Bureau of Forest Fire Control, Massachusetts Army National Guard at Joint Base Cape Cod, U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Municipal Fire Departments and Natural Resource Programs, Northeast Forest and Fire Management L.L.C., and the many volunteers and neighbors across the state.

Prescribed burns were successfully carried out on the ridge top heathlands of Leyden WMA, the pine and oak barrens of Montague Plains WMA, and the extensive grasslands of Southwick WMA. Moving eastward, prescribed burns were used to help restore native warm season grasslands at Herman Covey and Muddy Brook WMAs. We also conducted forest and open woodland burns at Muddy Brook WMA to improve oak and hickory regeneration and enhance habitat for wildlife and plants. Numerous prescribed burns were safely carried out within the scrub oak barrens, pine and oak woodlands, coastal sandplain grasslands and heathlands of the Southeast Pine Barrens WMA, Frances A. Crane WMA, and Penikese Island Sanctuary.

The beneficial effects of prescribed burning are tremendous. Properly timed and carried out, these burns produce spectacular results in grasslands promoting native warm season grasses such as little bluestem and eliminating woody encroachment and undesirable plants. These burns remove the thick layer of thatch, promote native grasses and wildflowers, and create important cover as well as nesting and feeding habitat for rare and declining grassland birds, such as the grasshopper sparrow and upland sandpiper. Prescribed burns in pine-oak barrens, woodlands, and heaths improve habitat for huntable wildlife such as ruffed grouse, wild turkey, American woodcock, white-tailed deer and a multitude of rare and declining species such as whip-poor-will, northern harrier, and Eastern meadowlark. Black bear and New England cottontail also benefit from the increases in blueberries, acorns, and palatable browse. Recent research has shown that prescribed fire not only increases the regeneration of certain desirable trees and shrubs like oak and hickory, but has also shown a dramatic and lasting increase in the nutritional value of the browse within leaves and palatable stems. Many fire adapted herbs and shrubs increase with burning and provide important nectar and food sources for rare butterflies, moths, and bees. Wild lupine, New England blazing star, orange milkweed, and New Jersey tea are just of the few of the many plants dependent and benefiting from prescribed fire. Periodic fire also helps control plant and animal parasites, including ticks and forest pests such as the southern pine beetle. Selecting the proper size, frequency, and timing of burns is critical to successful fire management to improve wildlife habitat and restore plant communities. Surveys and monitoring the effects of prescribed burns allow us to adapt and tweak our management approaches as we move forward.

Fire ecologists recognize that fire is an important factor that helped shape the vegetation encountered by many of the first European explorers in Massachusetts. Whether caused by lightning or humans, many woodlands, barrens, shrublands, grasslands, and specialized wetlands evolved with fire. Native Americans were adept at using fire as a management tool for thousands of years in Massachusetts. Although prescribed fire is not considered a new management tool, in some places it has been absent on the landscape for over a century and its selective reintroduction requires careful planning and often pre-treatment of vegetation such as forest thinning and mowing to reduce the build-up of hazardous vegetation (such as flammable brush, dead and down woody materials, vines, and more densely packed trees) which cause hotter and more intense fires. Prescribed burns also help reduce the chance of unplanned wildfire events and their damaging effects to natural resources, air quality, people, and property. MassWildlife works with our many partners to ensure forestry, mowing, invasive plant control, rare species protection, and monitoring are addressed, and that restoration and prescribed fire activities are coordinated and appropriately carried out

Media Contact for Prescribed burning for wildlife: An essential land management tool

Division of Fisheries and Wildlife 

MassWildlife is responsible for the conservation of freshwater fish and wildlife in the Commonwealth, including endangered plants and animals. MassWildlife restores, protects, and manages land for wildlife to thrive and for people to enjoy.

MassWildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program 

The Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program is responsible for the conservation and protection of hundreds of species that are not hunted, fished, trapped, or commercially harvested in the state, as well as the protection of the natural communities that make up their habitats.