USFS project benefits wildlife

An aerial view of a north rolling barrel burn on June 23, 2016. (Photo courtesy of John Agner)

GLADSTONE — Black-backed woodpeckers have unique habitat needs. During periods without wildfires, these birds live in small, dispersed populations in unburned stands of conifer trees. However, after a large wildfire that burns into the treetops, black-backed woodpecker population predictably increases dramatically. That’s because black-backed woodpeckers thrive among the dead and dying trees created by intense wildfires. Amidst those burned and blackened pines, their black backs make them difficult prey as they feed on wood-boring beetles and build cavity nests in decaying trees.

However, even without a large wildfire to create black-backed woodpeckers’ preferred habitat, in April Hiawatha National Forest wildlife staff counted over two dozen black-backed woodpeckers breeding in the Raco Plains area, according to a press release from the U.S. Forest Service.

“What caused this irruption, or sudden upsurge in population? In a nutshell: thoughtful, interdisciplinary management practices — specifically the Rolling Barrel Project, a project that accomplished the difficult task of using a controlled burn to imitate a stand-replacing wildfire,” the release said. “Specialists designed the Rolling Barrel project to help prevent black-backed woodpecker population decline and possible listing as an endangered species.”

Black-backed woodpeckers are rare because fire suppression and salvage logging following wildfire have reduced their preferred burned habitat, the release said. However, land managers have learned that a better way to reduce future wildfires (and conserve species diversity) is to maintain a resilient landscape by mimicking the pattern, frequency and intensity of historic wildfires. Forest Service managers consider the natural history of wildfire when creating new wildlife habitat, maintaining fuel-breaks, producing wood products and simulating the beneficial effects of fire. This kind of interdisciplinary approach guided development of the Rolling Barrel project.

First, a small team of Hiawatha National Forest wildlife biologists, fire managers and foresters devised a five-year integrated management plan for the Raco Plains — 60,000 acres of dry, sandy, pine-dominated ecosystem, which is historically prone to frequent wildfire and relies on fire for renewal and natural regeneration. The plan specified vegetation removal — to reduce fuels, create a safe burn buffer, provide wood products, and create new young habitat — followed by controlled fire. Specifically, some mature trees inside the burn unit were harvested before the burn to create a diverse habitat of grass, shrubs and trees that would make the burn less intense and easier to control.

A male black-backed woodpecker perches on a tree in Hiawatha National Forest. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Sommers)

Hiawatha National Forest fire staff and other resource specialists — assisted by a 10-person fire crew from the Huron-Manistee and fire staff from the Ottawa National Forest — conducted the 840-acre Rolling Barrel controlled burn, the release said. Fire specialists divided the project into three units: The Barrel portion of the burn was completed in June 2015. The North Rolling Barrel burn was conducted in June 2016. Burning of the South Rolling Barrel is planned for this year. In keeping with the burn plan, several 3- to 5-acre clumps of live jack pine trees have been intentionally allowed to burn, and the charred remains of those pines already host the new irruption of black-backed woodpeckers.

“The Rolling Barrel controlled burn project is an excellent example of successful management of the fire prone Raco Plains and the species that depend on that ecosystem,” said Brenda Dale, U.S. Forest Service fire management officer for the area.

With thousands of acres managed to mimic wildfire-created habitat, Forest Service specialists anticipate the project will result in increased local populations of many early successional and fire-adapted species in addition to the Black-backed Woodpecker. Rock Harlequin, a fire dependent rare plant, has already appeared at the site. Other species likely to benefit include snag- and cavity-dwellers like bluebird and kestrel; barrens species like sharp-tailed grouse; and the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, found only in young jack pine stands.

“This project demonstrates that strategic planning for controlled burns, combined with good forest management, will create some of the ecological benefits that usually result from wildfire,” Dale said.

In addition, the Rolling Barrel project reduces the number of highly flammable trees and shrubs and creates a new fuel break that will help control the spread of future wildfires. The project is one of many that demonstrate several kinds of benefits to the land as well as the local community, the release said.

A rolling Barrel burn unit on April 7, 2017, showing occupied black-backed woodpecker snag patch (S. Sjogren photo)

“The public and our public lands resources benefit when experienced specialists work together using a variety of land management methods to strike a balance between minimizing wildfire risk and maintaining healthy habitats,” said Steve Sjogren, a recently retired USFS wildlife biologist.

For more information about fire management and integrated resource projects, contact one of our district offices or visit our webpage www.fs.usda.gov/hiawatha.