Guided by Fire

Picking an elk hunting area based on wildfires

By Remi Warren

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Across the West, fires are a significant annual occurrence. Over the last ten years, there has been an upward trend. Millions and millions of acres – much of it public land – is barbequed every year.

While the immediate effects can seem devastating, the good news is that wildfires can in fact create excellent habitat for elk. The increased feed can bolster the area’s big game population and overall health of the animals. This also leads to better antler growth.

Elk and Fires

The interspersed and sometimes splotchy burned/non-burned areas create what biologist call an edge effect. Fires can increase the abundance of elk forage that can have positive lasting effects for ten years or more, depending on the situation involved within an individual burn.  Studies have shown that fires in heavily timbered forests can lead to an increase in the elk population for that area by over 70%.

Calf survival to maturity has a lot to do with their relative birth weight. With more available food for their mothers, calves are set up to live longer. Also, in captivity, it has been proven that healthy cows have a higher likelihood that new calves will be born male.

Cow elk also first breed based on their body weight, with half the cows coming into estrus at 70% of their mature body weight. This means that healthy populations with plenty of forage may start breeding sooner. This effect can have positive impacts in a fairly short amount of time. Noticeable effects are seen within two to five years, hitting the max benefit around seven or eight years.

Picking a Burned Area

Because not all burns are equal, there is a science to picking the best area to maximize the potential benefits from a fire. To do this, I look at how the fire burned, how long ago it burned, and what type of range was burned in the fire. Once I’ve narrowed this down, I’ll then pick spots based on the criteria I’m looking for.

When the fire took place. The time that has elapsed since the fire took place, as well as the stage of regrowth, makes a huge difference in picking an area to hunt. An early fire (one that ends in July, for example), can often recover enough to start new succulent green growth for that fall. Just because a fire was recent does not mean that it should be passed over. If you see new growth, resident elk will begin using it that very year.

If the fire was late in the summer like late August or September, I will pass that area up for hunting the same year. There likely won’t be enough time for initial regrowth, and the elk won’t be there.

Most burn areas reach their maximum benefit around seven years after a fire, but I’ll start hunting them three to five years after the initial fire. This gives the area enough time to start growing the population, increase the number of bulls, and provide good feed to bulls that will now be reaching maturity.

In 2006 and 2007, there were a large number of smaller fires across Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah that are now in their most productive years for elk. Now is the time to capitalize on some of these burns.

How the fire burned. The best elk habitat is a patchy burn where at least 20% of the area remains unburned within the fire perimeter. Look for fires that have a mosaic pattern of areas completely scorched mixed in with partial burned timber and live timber. As edge animals, elk seldom travel more than 1200 yards from suitable cover. These patchy areas are where I focus the majority of my attention.

Type of range that was burned. For overall burn use, it’s better to find an area that has had a fire on a winter range than a summer range. Studies show that elk use burns more frequently in the winter than in the summer. This is because food is more important in the winter months and shelter is more important in the summer. Patchy fires in the winter range can help elk remain healthier even if it is a hard winter.

fire map
This map is an overlay of all fires over 1000 acres (shown in yellow) from 2001-2009. The red indicates single fires over 100,000 acres within the timeframe. This map serves as a reference and starting point to locate units that have had fires that could be productive hunting now. Remember that it’s covering nine years of fires, so the fire range indicated will be in varying stages of regrowth. This also maps the outer perimeter of each fire and does not indicate areas within the perimeter that remained untouched.

Top Six Things to Remember

1.     Don’t overlook patches of standing burned timber. It may not look like a great hiding spot, but dense standing burns can make elk feel secure enough to use it, and they’re really easy to see if you take time to glass it. Remember that even some areas that look pretty open can easily conceal elk. Take your time and look these spots over.

2.     When calling elk, be in front of the burned tree.  If you feel like you’re out in the open in a burn, it’s because you are. Don’t let that get the best of you. If a bull is coming into bow range as you call, you’re better off being in front of a tree and using it to block your outline, rather than behind a tree and having to move laterally. The open nature of a burn means your movement is more likely to get spotted, so you’re better off in front of a solid backdrop.

3.     Now is always a good time to hunt a burn. If a portion of an area you’re hunting or regularly hunt burns this summer, don’t count it out. The new growth will become a magnet for elk in the surrounding areas. Although the area may not reap the benefit of boosting the population in that time, the burn will attract many of the current elk and concentrate a portion of the elk in an area that may be easier to glass than other places.

4.     Glass into the pockets of live timber. The majority of elk using a burn will spend their time escaping danger in the pockets of canopy cover that remain. Find a spot where you can get across from this cover and glass into it. You may only be able to see bits and pieces, but you’ll likely catch elk moving in it. Watching multiple patches from afar allows you to catch elk when they first move out into the burn to feed in the evenings.

5.     Think about the habitat in terms what it was like before the fire. Elk will often use the same place they’ve always used, burnt or not. If there is a place you regularly got into elk before a burn and the spot is now open, elk may still be ingrained to use this portion of their home range. Burns also allow you to see the topography of areas in a new way.  Look at the areas they like, notice what makes it unique, and then find other spots that look similar.

6.     Watch for falling trees. Burns can be dangerous, especially five to ten years after the initial fire. Standing dead trees will rot, and often the root systems have been partially burned out (yes, fire will burn underground). One good windstorm can put you in danger.  These rotted trees can fall surprisingly quiet for their size. Make note of areas where there are a lot of downed trees and avoid them during high winds. If I’m crossing through a large area of blowdowns, I try to look at the direction most the trees have fallen and walk on the opposite side of trees I know could kill me (two close calls really drove this point home). Also, beware of taking stock through areas like these, especially if you notice significant root burning, holes, and sunken spots. It’s an easy way to break a horse’s leg.

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