Many Texans watched in horror two summers ago as fire swept across a brittle landscape seared by drought.
Many families lost ranches and homes to the devastation. Despite the personal losses, some good has emerged from the blackened landscape.
According to biologists, wildlife has played an important role in the history of rangeland in Texas. On average, fires burned the landscape every 10 or 20 years until the 20th century, when man settled the land and did not allow fire to perform its natural duty.
“Because of where (the fire) occurred in the Palo Pinto Mountains, it was pretty well choked with cedar,” said Kevin Mote, Possum Kingdom district leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “In the long run, within three years, it was a definitely a good thing for the range. But it depends on your perspective.
“Many of the ranchers lost a whole year of grazing.”
Mote said the area revolved around fires before man inhabited the area, so from a long-term ecological standpoint, it was hugely beneficial.
“We are already seeing incredible recovery,” he said. “Last fall, we put radio collars on hen turkeys and those birds were immediately back in those areas and spent the winter there. This winter and spring we had good rains and the grass, forbes, and regrowth of woody species was phenomenal.”
Mote said a lot of food that had reached 20-feet in the air on mature trees now is back on the ground where game can take advantage.
“We’ve seen an increase in plant diversity and animal diversity,” he said.
James Edwards, a TPWD biologist in DeLeon, said wildlife was displaced during the fire, but have made a remarkable comeback.
“In PK State Park, the fire has been so beneficial up there,” he said. “It was 80 percent juniper before the fire — now we have sumac, live oaks and post oaks. The live oak regrowth is 3-feet tall already. We don’t have our deer survey numbers back from this year yet, but last year, deer numbers were up from where they had been.”
And that is good news for hunters.
Many ranches practice controlled burning — mostly in winter and spring — to improve range conditions as even beneficial plants can become overgrown.
“Wildlife responds quickly, especially after rains,” said Nathan Rains, a TPWD diversity biologist in Cleburne. “It is rain dependent, but we use controlled burns for habitat restoration and control. For range restoration, even beneficial grasses like bluestem can get too thick.”