In most cases, smoke rising from a Pennsylvania state game land is not reason for alarm.
Pennsylvania Game Commission staff conducts prescribed burns on many game lands during the spring.
Why would the Game Commission purposefully set fire to land?
Controlled burns are used by the Game Commission on game lands statewide to improve plant and wildlife habitats, and reduce the chance of wildfire.
Prescribed fires are conducted during the spring to mimic, under strict control, historic fire that once occurred on the landscape. Many ecosystems in Pennsylvania are considered fire dependent, or requiring periodic fire to regenerate. Species like pitch pine and scrub oak, for instance, grow in habitats known as barrens and without fire, important barrens habitats eventually fade from the landscape. Barrens habitats are among the most diverse and ecologically productive. Young, regenerating pitch pine provides excellent escape cover and roosting areas while scrub oak has the ability to produce an annual acorn crop far more consistent than white or red oak species. This in turn provides forage for deer, turkeys, grouse, bears and many more.
Fire is also used in the spring to help foresters control competing vegetation like striped and red maple and birch from oak stands. A prescribed fire conducted when the competing vegetation is starting to leaf is effective in obtaining maple and birch mortality while promoting young oak seedlings that will eventually grow into mast-producing trees.
What happens to wildlife during the burn?
The Game Commission designs the prescribed fire to provide an opening in burn units for animals to escape. Igniters act as drivers to push wildlife towards the opening.
In addition, animals that utilize fire-dependent habitats have evolved to deal with periodic fire and have many reproductive (like the ability to re-nest) and defensive responses should a fire occur within their home range.
How does this affect turkey and grouse broods and spring turkey hunting?
Controlled burns are designed in part to improve turkey habitat. They provide tremendous benefits, especially to young broods. After fire moves through, succulent re-growth provides poults with the food, cover, and protein-rich bugs they need to grow and survive.
Some spring gobblers are attracted to burns. Hunters have sent photos of gobblers harvested in areas recently burned. Additionally, only a small portion of available habitat is burned at one time.
-Bureau of Habitat Management
Photo by Hal Korber