Cumberland Times-News

August 11, 2012

Wildlife grasses spring forth after controlled burn in March

Michael A. Sawyers
Cumberland Times-News

— OLDTOWN — In March, Jim Mullan was one of the state employees who intentionally set fire to grasses on the Warrior Mountain Wildlife Management Area.

On Tuesday, almost five months after the rapid and intense blaze, Mullan, the western regional manager for the Maryland Wildlife & Heritage Service, stood in that same field and admired the results of the handiwork done by his agency and the Maryland Forest Service.

Specifically, Mullan was checking out the big bluestem grass that seeks to grow almost as high as an elephant’s eye during the spring and summer.

“There is also switchgrass and Indian grass that has come back in,” he said, fondling the flora a couple hundred yards off Oliver Beltz Road.

“This (10-acre) field is managed for wildlife habitat, specifically upland wildlife and the recreation that goes along with it,” Mullan said. “Good wildlife habitat consists of food, water and cover that are close together.”

The real benefactors of this hands-on wildlife management are ground nesting birds —  ranging in size from wild turkeys to sparrows — and mammals such as cottontail rabbits and voles.

“But deer use this habitat too,” Mullan said, “and it wouldn’t be unusual for a bear to be seen here.”

In 2011, as a part of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Forest Brigade Program, the Forest Service, assisted by state prison inmates, planted numerous trees that will eventually augment the cover and food within the field. For now, those young trees are protected in plastic tubes.

The trees include white pine, Virginia pine, Eastern red cedar, black cherry, black oak and chestnut oak.

The Warrior Mountain WMA encompasses 4,672 acres, 5 percent of which is in fields and grasses. It lies mostly between Oliver Beltz and Cresap Mill roads.

A variety of public access points are available for hunters and other users.

“We acquired this field 10 years ago. It was pasture then and you could look up at it from the road and see every nook and cranny in the land,” Mullan said. That’s no longer true, the grasses of varying height give wildlife plenty of cover to shield them from long-range viewing.

Controlled burns are to improve wildlife habitat, but Mullan said they have been shut down when nesting turkeys have been found in the area meant to go up in smoke.

This year’s burn, though, came off pretty much picture perfect. When the grasses thicken in two or three more years and lose their value for wildlife, the torch will be lit once more.

Contact Outdoor Editor Mike Sawyers at msawyers@times-news.com.