Woods and Waters: More controlled burns planned for the Scotia Barrens

Pat McElhenny, with The Nature Conservancy, examines the effects of fire on a pitch pine tree in SGL 176. McElhenny has been the “fire boss” on all previous prescribed burns at Scotia.
Pat McElhenny, with The Nature Conservancy, examines the effects of fire on a pitch pine tree in SGL 176. McElhenny has been the “fire boss” on all previous prescribed burns at Scotia.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission has scheduled another five controlled burns for State Game Lands 176 — the Scotia Barrens — located in Patton, Ferguson and Halfmoon townships. The burns are designed to preserve and enhance the unique pitch pine-scrub oak barrens environment that is found there.

Benefits of the prescribed burns were touted by the PGC, as well as personnel from The Nature Conservancy and Penn State researcher Alan Taylor. In addition to pitch pine/scrub oak habitat rejuvenation, the fires kill or reduce invasive species, such as Tartarian honeysuckle, privet, barberry and multiflora rose.

According to Taylor, the burns have been particularly successful at knocking back the invasive honeysuckle and killing red maple at Scotia, but the pitch pines have yet to show much positive response and more fires may be needed.

This year’s burns will be, by far, the most visible to the public, for all of the burn units have significant frontage on Scotia Range Road.

According to PGC Fire Logistics and Training Chief John Wakefield, this is due to the abundance of invasive species along the road corridor.

“We want the public to see our habitat work — to observe the positive things that prescribed fire can accomplish,” Wakefield said.

The initial burns, carried out on three units of SGL 176 in 2010, included 278 acres of mostly pitch pine-scrub oak habitat. An additional 131 acres of forest were burned in 2012, and two units totaling 130 acres were burned last year.

The Scotia burn planned for this spring, the most ambitious thus far, will include 338 acres of mostly previously brush-hogged land that contained a high concentration of invasive shrubs. This prescribed fire will occur, weather permitting, during the “burn window” — now through May 24. The land area of SGL 176 totals 6,231 acres — with the area to be burned only a small fraction of the total.

“Last year, we mowed large areas of invasive honeysuckles prior to the burn and that influenced the quality of the fire,” commented Wakefield. “Our success last year is really driving the burns planned for Scotia this spring. It was a huge step forward to controlling the invasive plants and promoting native species at Scotia. It is great to see all of the native grasses and forbs that sprouted from the seed bank after last spring’s fire.”

Paul Lupo, Forest Program Specialist with the Commission, added, “The advanced mowing allowed us to have more fuel on the ground to carry the fire. That was an important lesson learned about the success of last year’s fire — something that we hope to repeat this year.”

Deer ticks have also been a problem at SGL 176, and PGC Private Land Biologist Mike Pruss shared the positive results of his agency’s tick study.

Traps and drag cloths were used for sampling over a 3-year period (2009 to 2011) on more than 68 plots and transects. Pre-burn data had been gathered in 2009.

“Only deer ticks (black-legged ticks) were found, and of those tested, about 50 percent tested positive for the Lyme disease-causing bacteria,” Pruss noted. “Tick populations were reduced 88 percent one week following the burn. Deer tick activity has a spring and a fall peak, so we sampled again in the fall. Reductions remained high in the fall of 2010, with no ticks captured in the burn area the following fall. Tick activity in the control areas was higher in the fall than in the spring.”

Subjective assessments were made by questioning hikers, birders, dog walkers, and turkey hunters about the post-burn tick population. The comments received were positive, supporting the findings of lower tick numbers.

Jones outlined the history of burning conducted by his agency and provided details of what is planned across the state for this year.

“The commission got seriously into burning following the passage of the Fire Practices Act in 2009. We started small, but the number of acres burned has steadily increased since 2010,” Jones stated. “After burns of a few hundred acres in each of the first few years, a total of 1,506 acres of gamelands received prescribed burns in 2012, and another 2,580 acres in 2013.

“Prescribed fires are planned for all six of the Game Commission’s regions in 2014. This includes 51 different gamelands, found in 34 counties,” Jones detailed. “About 5,000 acres are scheduled to be burned this spring.”

According to Jones, the largest single burn in the state — 590 acres — is scheduled to be set on Game Lands 210, in Dauphin County, later this spring. The area is a mixture of oak and scrub oak habitat.

Pat McElhenny from The Nature Conservancy has been partnering with the Game Commission for controlled fires since the beginning. He has helped train agency personnel and often acts as the “fire boss,” particularly in the northeastern counties.

“We had a fire crew on SGL 226, in Columbia County, on April 10, which was the first burn in northeastern Pennsylvania this spring,” McElhenny shared. “We are still waiting for the woodlands to dry out, but conditions were perfect for a grassland burn.”

According to McElhenny, grassland burns such as the one on SGL 226, invigorate the warm season grasses, get rid of a lot of invasives and promote other native plants such as milkweed and goldenrod. This is beneficial to everything from rabbits, meadowlarks and monarch butterflies, to the white-tailed deer.

Another recent burn was conducted on 63 acres of oak forest on SGL 83 in York County.

“We burned two units that day — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Our purpose was to knock back the birch trees that are competing with the oak,” Jones said. “At around 4 p.m., we went back to make sure that everything was safe on the morning burn, and there were three big gobblers strutting on the blackened forest floor. I wish I could show you a picture of that.”

Jones and PGC Forest Program Specialist Paul Lupo are truly excited about all of the positive wildlife effects that they are seeing in the years following a prescribed burn — particularly with mixed oak, scrub oak and aspen habitat.

“The number of oak and aspen sprouts and seedlings are up dramatically — 300 to 400 percent in some previously-burned areas,” Lupo noted. “The fires are also helping us to maintain herbaceous openings and achieve habitat variety.” Aspen and oak are both important food sources for deer, ruffed grouse, black bears and other species.

Jones extolled the virtues of scrub oak.

“It is a very beneficial species for game — particularly deer. During the first five years, it produces a tremendous amount of high-quality browse — and it is highly resistant to deer browsing. From year five to about year 12, it produces many small acorns. When acorn production slows, it will be time to burn the area again,” noted Jones.

According to the PGC, local media contacts will be made 24 to 48 hours prior to potential burn days to keep local residents informed. The earliest that a burn could occur at Scotia would be April 15.

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com