While Thomas Baldridge was interviewed for an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission video recently about the conservational benefits of burning underbrush on his land, a wild turkey gobbled off-camera.
Baldridge stopped mid-filming and smiled. “That’s distracting,” he said.
The outtake remained in the clip, which can be seen on YouTube, and is testament to how using a method called prescribed burning can help improve habitat and restore habitat populations, such as turkeys, quail and deer.
The prescribed burning effort is one of the measures the Game and Fish Commission is encouraging landowners to use to help bring back wildlife to the state. Officials plan to increase education about the program in the coming months.
Landowners use fire to burn off debris, vegetation and some trees that may create a sunlight-blocking canopy that stunts the growth of native plants that wildlife thrive on. Since Baldridge began burning on his 400 acres near Searcy three years ago, he’s seen a vast increase in quail, painted buntings, turkeys and other birds.
Baldridge’s sister, he said, lives near his farm and is an avid birdwatcher. Since he began burning his land, she’s noted a vast increase in the number of birds she’s seen.
The National Audubon Society reported that since 1970, the U.S. has lost 3 billion birds.
“We are in a bird emergency,” said National Audubon Society senior vice president Sarah Greenberger in a press release about the loss of birds. “And we know that if they are in trouble, so are we.”
Baldridge recently found eggs of monarch butterflies on the leaves of small milkweed that grew after he burned off the debris. The butterflies, like many species, have disappeared off of private lands because of so much unattended undergrowth of plants and trees.
It’s a reverse from years of encouraging people to fear fire – mostly brought on by one of the most successful advertising campaigns by the U.S. Forestry Service. In that campaign, developed in 1944 by the Advertising Council, a cartoon bear wearing a ranger hat with “Smokey” on it urged people to be careful of wildfires.
“Only you can prevent forest fires,” Smokey, voiced by many over the years, including actor Sam Elliott, ominously intoned.
“It instilled that fire was a bad thing for the landscape,” said Ted Zawislak, statewide private lands supervisor for the Game and Fish Commission. “When you burn, you’re doing something bigger than yourself. There are controls to doing it right. If you do it wrong, you lose a tool in the toolbox of restoring wildlife.”
The Game and Fish Commission has partnered with Wildlife Management Areas, the U.S. Forestry Service, the Nature Conservancy, Quail Forever and other agencies to burn on publicly-owned land for years.
But only about 10% of Arkansas is publicly owned.
“If you do a bang up job [of burning debris and brush] on the 10% of land we control, that’s only a 10% success rate in the state,” said Randy Zellers, assistant chief of communications for the Game and Fish. “We need to teach private land owners how to work their land.”
The Game and Fish Commission has stepped up its focus on private lands, Zawislak said, with the creating of Prescribed Burn Associations. They are groups of landowners who form partnerships and pool their knowledge and experience to help others with controlled burns.
Once the association is formed, they will receive training and can apply for use of a burn trailer that provides workers and equipment. Classes, called “Learn to Burn” and “Learn to Burn 2,” are held periodically to instruct landowners on proper burning techniques.
Most of the state’s associations are in northern and northcentral Arkansas now, but there’s a push to add many more. The Game and Fish Commission has created a Facebook group called Arkansas Private Lands Habitat Division, where people can read about techniques, scheduled meetings and any updates.
Presently, the state has one private land biologist who helps with the associations’ burnings for every six to eight counties, Zawislak said. In neighboring Missouri, there are land biologists for every one to two counties, he added.
The commission hopes to increase the percentage in Arkansas.
“It’s all about relationships,” Zawislak said. “It takes visits to build trust.
“Fire is the most economical tool to help restore wildlife, but it’s the most challenging. There’s the fear we deal with.”
Baldridge said he was a bit apprehensive about burning his land at first. But, he comes from a family of firefighters. His father was a fire chief in Jacksonville and Searcy, and Baldridge has been a firefighter as well.
“Fire was comfortable to me,” he said. “We had property my dad owned next to National Forestry Service land. They’d burn every two to three years as a hazard reduction.
“I understand people’s apprehensions and fear,” he said. “Whenever people encounter fire, it’s a scary thing. We see the big wildfires and house fires on television. The message of the benefit of fire and its part in the ecosystem is lost, though.”
Before Arkansas was settled, fire was used by the natives who lived in the area to help prairie lands flourish. Voyager Henry Schoolcraft traveled into the state in 1849 and kept a journal of his trip. He entered the state from near West Plains, Missouri, cut over to Mountain Home and back up to Springfield, Missouri. He then followed the White River down to Batesville.
In his journal, Schoolcraft noted the lack of trees in some areas near the Ozark Mountains.
“He wrote that there were places he couldn’t find two sticks to start a campfire,” Zawislak said. “Fire was a much bigger portion of the landscape then than it is today. He wrote there were places [near the Ozarks] where you could ride a horse through a forest and not hit a lower limb. You can’t do that today.”
Another conservation project the Game and Fish Commission is applying is work on greentree reservoirs, which are bottomland forests artificially flooded by land management agencies to provide habitat for ducks.
The Game and Fish manages nearly 50 greentree reservoirs across the state with more than 50,000 acres of flooded forests like the Dave Donaldson Wildlife Management Area near Pocahontas and the Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area near Bald Knob.
Game and Fish commissioners approved transferring $1 million to complete construction and installation of the Glaise Creek water-control structure at Henry Gray Hurricane Lake. The plan calls for improving the drainage and capacity for sustainable bottomland hardwood forest management, a Game and Fish press release said.
“This is the biggest project,” Zellers said.
He added the project will help create both habitat and food sources for mallards and ducks.
“Arkansas is called the duck hunting capital of the world,” Zellers said. “Going to the Wildlife Management Areas are on [hunters’] bucket lists.”
Arkansas’ bottomlands were gradually changing as red oak trees began being replaced by oaks that produced acorns with “overcaps,” or the shelled caps atop the nut. Ducks eat the acorns but, because they have no teeth, cannot shell the caps of the newer acorns.
“Those trees are not as desirable for mallards,” Zellers said. “We’re trying to shift that and make slow changes in the habitat. Over 10 years, it may be a drastic change, but year to year it’s a slow process.”
The Game and Fish Commission is also replacing a water block control structure at the Bayou Deview Wildlife Management Area near Weiner. Plans call for changing a 4-foot wide block with a new 12-foot wide and 10-foot tall block.
And, the commission is focusing on improving turkey population in the state by opening forest lands.
“They need open fields and broad leaf vegetation for insects,” Zellers said. “They need grains. They have a diverse diet. The key to getting turkeys is to get sunlight on the grounds. Natural disasters like tornadoes and fires help open up land, but we need to teach landowners about that.”
Finally, the Game and Fish is also working with municipalities to create shooting ranges across the state. The commission collaborated with Jonesboro, opening a shooting range in May. They’ve also helped build one in Jacksonville and are working on a range in Northwest Arkansas.
All of the conservation projects include collaborative efforts and partnerships. It’s a goal Game and Fish Commission Director Austin Booth is working toward increasing.
“We want to recruit the next generation who care about conservation,” Zellers said. “If not, there’s no one left to pick up the shovel and continue on tomorrow.”
One of the partnerships involves working with The Nature Conservancy, an organization that works with climate changes and conserving lands and wildlife.
The organization is working with private landowners to help inform them about prescribed burns, said Roger Mangham, the director of the Alabama chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
“There are certain times of the year for burning,” Mangham said. “We need to get that information across Arkansas. A majority of land there has been out of [burn] rotation for 50 years.
The conservancy is advocating the use of drones to safely burn lands. The best time to burn lands is between December and April when land is dormant. The second time is between July and the first frost of late October.
“We’re trying to assist private landowners,” he said. “In the next 10 years, we will focus on private lands in a big way.”
The Prescribed Burn Associations is one way to get information to landowners, Zawislak said.
“Half of the courses are group education,” he said. “The other half is hands-on training.”
Those wanting to burn their land will first assist other landowners who have scheduled prescribed burns so they can see how the process works.
“Fire is restoring habitat,” he said. “We’ve seen increases in quail. Quail need open grassland. There’s no vegetation in canopy lands. Quail in Arkansas began declining in the 1970s. We’re hoping to bring them back.”
The Game and Fish hold annual banquets to award landowners for good conservational stewardship and management.
“We’ve turned this around in the last three years with sweat equity and guidance,” he said.
Baldridge was awarded for his conservational efforts earlier this year.
“What we’re doing is so drastically different than in the past,” Baldridge said. “There had been a focus before on planting trees. There are more forested areas now than when white man first came here.
“What we need to do is cut trees and clear out the landscape. We’ve seen a lot of changes, but there’s still an endless amount of work to do.”
The Game and Fish reported that hunters checked a total of 7,013 turkeys in 2021, an 18% decline from the 2020 season. The COVID-19 epidemic could be blame in part for the decrease, but the harvest was still 15% less than 2019. The lack of proper habitat is a major cause for the decline, Game and Fish officials have said.
Baldridge said he did a test on his land, cutting down five cedar and oak trees to clear land.
“By mid-April, stuff was starting to grow,” he said. “I saw milkweed natural to the area come back. They weren’t growing because there wasn’t any sunlight. It was an amazing thing to see monarch butterfly eggs on the leaves and realize you’re a part of that.
“Burning is one of the ingredients. It’s not the entire recipe. It’s all about removing the invasive components and letting the natural growth come back.
“Those who may object to this should contact a Game and Fish biologist and join a PBA. If they don’t have turkeys gobbling on their lands, and I have turkeys on my land and quails walking across my yard while the kids are on the trampoline, maybe they ought to listen.”