Controlled burns, flooding necessary to manage habitats
Wildlife biologist Austin LeCroy has always known he wasn’t cut out for an office job. “I always knew I couldn’t handle a career where I was sitting behind a desk all day or laying under a vehicle turning a wrench,” he says.
During his senior year of high school, he learned about wildlife biology. It spoke to him as a career path. He followed the call to Auburn University, where he earned a degree in wildlife ecology and management.
LeCroy works out of the Wannville office for the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries division of Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“I’ve always had a passion for water- fowl, hunting and being outdoors, and this job has been the perfect combination of all those things,” LeCroy says.
His sidekick — a fox red Labrador named Cali — accompanies him while he monitors water levels and does every- day tasks.
After working in Florida for a couple of years, LeCroy returned home to Alabama to his old stomping grounds. “Being able to manage these pieces of public property where I grew up hunting and fishing as a teenager makes this job even more of a dream to me,” he says.
Among other things, LeCroy oversees the management activities in the Jackson County waterfowl areas, which include about 35,000 acres of land. These Wild- life Management Areas (WMA) include Raccoon Creek, Mud Creek, Crow Creek and Coon Gulf. He also helps manage the refuges of Crow Creek and North Sauty.
Crow Creek is considered a Special Opportunity Area (SOA), public property where specific hunts are allowed throughout the year. The prospective hunters are chosen at random. Those chosen receive a permit and are assigned a date to hunt.
LeCroy stays busy all year, but each day looks a little different for him. “My duties change throughout the year from projects like maintaining our WMA roads so the public has access to our areas, to biological surveys such as spring/fall bobwhite quail counts and capturing and banding wood ducks and dove in the summer,” he says. But, most of his time is spent on habitat management that benefits all species of wildlife.
Some of the habitat management practices include prescribed fire burns, planting and flooding crops for winter waterfowl, and strip disking, a process that stimulates germination through soil disturbance.
In parts of the country where wild- fires are a big threat, prescription burns are used to remove dead leaves and other debris that could potentially fuel a wildfire. “What we mainly use pre- scribed fire for on the waterfowl areas is for old field restoration, agricultural field site preparation and resetting succession in our forests,” LeCroy says.
A prescribed burn can also help rejuvenate the land because it burns out invasive plant species.
According to LeCroy, fire is one of the most efficient and natural ways to reset succession in an ecosystem. What exactly does that mean?
“Succession is basically defined as the process in which habitat and species change over a period of time,” LeCroy says. “For example, one habitat, such as an open field of grasses, is replaced in two or three years by a field of briars, which is replaced in four or five years by a field of saplings, and so on until a mature forest is reached or until a disturbance happens, such as fire.”
When a prescribed burn takes place, all the leaf litter on the forest floor is turned to ash, which then returns nutrients to the soil. This soil nourishment takes place much quicker than it would through natural decomposition. Burn- ing the debris from the forest floor also allows sunlight to permeate the ground and promote the growth of native species, like grasses and forbs, flowering plants that produce seeds.
“Fire also exposes seed on the forest floor and reduces insect populations, such as ticks, which is why you often see turkeys walking around scratching in a burn unit while there is still smoke rising from the ground,” LeCroy says.
In south Alabama, some species of animals depend on fire for survival. Examples are gopher tortoises and eastern indigo snakes, which live in long- leaf pine forests that also require fire to thrive.
“In Jackson County, the main fire-dependent species that we have seen a dramatic decline in the last half-century is the bobwhite quail,” LeCroy says. “We are currently working on restoring a lot of our public historic upland sites to better mimic the early-successional habitat required by quail, and one of the main tools we use is prescribed fire,” LeCroy says.
Starting the fire
It all starts with a plan or a burn prescription. For every intended burn, a plan is made that includes the acreage, the type of habitat, possible weather conditions and the goal of the burn.
“While fire can be an efficient management tool it can also be very destructive and dangerous if not taken seriously,” LeCroy says.
Officials then create a map of the burn area to decide which resources will be needed and how to manage the smoke. They inform the public, including through posts on the Wildlife and Fisheries Facebook page, about the days they plan to burn, so no one is alarmed.
Some of the main weather factors are humidity, wind speed and direction, temperature and the dispersion index, which determines air quality.
When the conditions are right, fire breaks are established and the burn begins. There is an art to executing a burn correctly. Crews use drip torches to pull lines of fire around the area. Between a “backing fire” — when lines of fire are laid across the downwind border allow- ing the fire to move backward creating a larger buffer zone — and the creation of a head fire to run with the direction of the wind, every move is calculated. Crew members constantly monitor the burns and have water on standby.
LeCroy says he didn’t want just any job. He wanted to wake up and enjoy going to work.
“I think I’ve found it,” he says.