Use of pine-dominated forests by female eastern wild turkeys immediately after prescribed fire.

  • August 15, 2017
  • by Yeldell, N. A., Cohen, B. S., Prebyl, T. J., Collier, B. A., & Chamberlain, M. J.

Prescribed fire is used in southeastern pine forests to maintain desirable forest conditions and provides herbaceous understory plant communities for wildlife. However, it is unclear how time-since-fire affects the short-term response of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) to prescribed fire. We examined use of recently burned pine stands by female eastern wild turkeys (M. g. silvestris) immediately following prescribed fire in a pine-dominated landscape managed with frequent fire. We developed several models to best predict the influence of time-since-fire and month of fire application on turkey use of burned areas. We also assessed the spatial behavior of turkeys when using recent burns to determine if distance to escape cover affected turkey use of recently burned areas. Female turkeys used burned areas immediately after fire and probability of use increased until 141 days post-fire and then declined until 250 days post-fire when data collection stopped. Response of turkeys to recent burns depended on the month of prescribed fire application; probability of use was greater for areas burned in February and during the growing season (April and May). Turkey use of space within burned areas declined as distance to surrounding unburned areas increased, suggesting that turkeys favor the edge of burned and unburned areas which could serve as escape cover. However, the effect of distance to the perimeter of burned stand decreased as time-since-fire increased. Our findings suggest that turkeys are less likely to use areas burned in early winter (e.g., December) than late winter (e.g., February), and are more likely to use space near edges of burned areas than the interior. We recommend managers in southeastern pine-dominated ecosystems apply dormant season fires in late winter and apply early spring growing season fires as needed to meet forest management objectives. Turkeys used burned areas immediately following prescribed fire, but traded-off exploitation of foraging opportunities by using space near escape cover. Applying prescribed fire on smaller patches in checkerboard fashion may enhance turkey use of the entirety of a burn unit, and future research should seek to delineate other variables influencing how turkeys use recently burned areas. We recommend applying prescribed fire to patches smaller than those burned on our study sites at frequent (2–3) year fire-return intervals to increase usable space for female turkeys throughout the reproductive period.