Alaska Trying Prescribed Burn to Revitalize Moose Winter Habitat

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State officials hope to conduct a research burn about 45 miles southwest of Delta Junction sometime in May or early June, weather permitting. The purpose is to see if prescribed fire can be used in early summer to rejuvenate winter moose habitat.

Fire personnel from the Alaska Division of Forestry plan to burn portions of three 2,000- acre areas in the West Fork of the Little Delta River. The vegetation differs in each area, but all are representative of the subalpine habitat above tree line. "There is not a lot of fire fuel present, so we only expect about a quarter of the total area to burn," said Robert Schmoll, Fire Management Officer for the State Division of Forestry.

The research burn will offer a chance to learn new techniques for firefighters. "Burning in the foothills will be a new experience for us, but the logistics should be much easier than a mid-summer burn closer to town," said Schmoll. "The burn area is in a remote mountainous area and is not expected to produce large amounts of smoke. It will pose little threat to people and property in surrounding communities."

The prescribed fire will be ignited by a helicopter that drops fire-starting "incendiary balls." The proper conditions for lighting will occur when dead grass, leaves, and twigs are dry enough to burn with only enough intensity to kill the aboveground portions of the willows and other shrubs. This kind of disturbance typically stimulates new sprouting from the plant root systems, producing an increase in available forage.

Managers hope to conduct the prescribed burn before fire conditions become extreme in the forested areas of the Interior and fire-fighting personnel become unavailable. Previous attempts have been made by the State, with limited success, to use prescribed burning to enhance wildlife habitat and break up expanses of fire-prone vegetation. The burns were scheduled for mid-summer when fires posed a greater danger to people and private property, and smoke from wildland fires was a serious problem. "If prescribed burning works during this early part of the season, it will greatly increase our options for enhancing browse in areas being intensively managed for moose," said Dale Haggstrom, Fire and Habitat Management Coordinator for the Department of Fish and Game.

The research area for this prescribed fire is traditional winter range for moose in Game Management Unit 20A, which includes the Tanana Flats and adjacent foothills. The area is designated as an Intensive Management area under legislation passed in 1994.

In recent years, up to 17% of the statewide moose harvest has come from Unit 20A. Fish and Game biologists have conducted browse surveys in the proposed burn area over the last few years so changes caused by the fire can be measured. Poor habitat is already having an effect on moose. "Cow moose are having their first calves at an older age, producing smaller calves, and giving birth to fewer twins," said Unit 20A Area Biologist Don Young. "Improving habitat quality will help increase productivity and the moose population's ability to withstand the effects of a severe winter."

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) reviewed the burn plan and issued an open burn permit. Fire officials plan to coordinate with DEC to monitor smoke conditions after the fire is lit.

"We recognize the potential for smoke impacts from the burn and avoiding those is a high priority," said Haggstrom. "We will do everything possible to conduct this burn in a way that smoke will not affect people's health or local businesses."

Additional information can be obtained from the Fairbanks offices of Fish and Game (459-7231) or Forestry (451-2636).