The War Begins Anew

A young Italian thistle, which can grow to be over 6 feet tall.

Today I spotted the first Italian thistle plants (see picture) of the 2020 invasive species removal season — or what I simply call “thistle season,” as the species we’re most focused on at the moment are the Italian and Yellow star thistle. These species are fully capable of taking over entire ecosystems and driving out native species and even wildlife. Thus we fight.

Thistle season has grown to last from the end of December, with the early onset of Italian thistle (slightly later this year), to well into August with the Yellow star. That makes thistle season nearly 8 months long, with only 4 months off. It doesn’t mean that we’re out there every day, mostly hand-pulling the weeds, but it means that every day we can starts to add up to a real difference. As it is, we’re witnessing a decrease in the volume and extent of Yellow star thistle, since we’ve attacked it for close to a decade. It’s even gone from some areas. But Italian thistle has essentially overrun the Montini Preserve and it is threatening to do the same on the Overlook Trail property. Thus, our recent efforts on Italian thistle have tended to focus on the Overlook Trail — first to eradicate it from the trail verge, where traffic on the trail can spread it, and then to fight it back from the trail into the surrounding areas.

Last year we were successful in clearing it back from the trail, but much beyond that was mostly untouched except for a few select areas. This year we’re hoping to have the time to take the fight further out from the trail, and especially hit some meadows where it hasn’t yet become widely established, such as the Upper Meadow on the Overlook. But the season has just begun, so we shall have to see what we can accomplish this season.

Meanwhile, if volunteering to help us pull these weeds is something that might interest you, I recommend you first read this post: “‘Don’t Look Up’ and Other Lessons from Invasive Species Removal.” We’re not trying to scare you off, really we aren’t, but it’s best to approach this work with your eyes open. Trust me on that. If you’re still game, let me know.

If you don’t wish to volunteer, but see us doing the work when you hike, throw us a wave. Feelings of pity and “there, but for the grace of God…” are also appropriate.

August seems like a long, long way off from here.

 

The 2019 Invasive Thistle Removal Season is Over

The weapon of choice: the glove that pulled thousands of thistles.

I’m calling it. Today was the first day I was out on the Montini Preserve and Overlook Trail properties and was unable to spot a single Yellow Star Thistle plant. So I consider this year’s invasive thistle removal season officially over. And what a long road it’s been.

I started pulling Italian thistle at the end of December, when I could pull it and discard it. Later, when blooms began to form we had to bag it in large contractor debris bags and carry it out. We dumped it beside a dumpster in the cemetery, as requested by City staff. As the season progressed, we moved to Yellow Star thistle while the Italian thistle that we couldn’t get to sadly went to seed.

For our next Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards meeting I will be giving a more formal and complete report, but here it is in a nutshell:

  • Yellow Star Thistle: Although we are clearly making progress, we may be 2-3 years away from complete eradication, except for along Norrbom Road, which has been completely unassailed so far. However, we have reduced the YST so far that we have now given it a setting of “zero tolerance,” which essentially means we are morally obligated to pull everything we see.
  • Italian Thistle: We only recently started to seriously address Italian thistle, and there is a long, long way to go. The Montini Preserve is all but overwhelmed with it, and removal operations were performed mostly along portions of the trail, largely for hiker comfort. On the Overlook, it was successfully removed from the entire trail, back at least 3-6 feet or more. It remains a substantial problem off-trail, although not as bad as the Montini Preserve. We have assigned a status of “calculated and opportunistic,” which means focusing on minimizing its spread by pushing it away from the trail and attacking isolated pockets elsewhere.
  • Scotch/French Broom: There is a bad section of broom near the cemetery that was unaddressed this year, and it is also encroaching on the Toyon Trailhead from the cemetery. Current status: unaddressed.
  • Tocalote: Tocalote is found in scattered areas across the property, but it’s extent is unknown and it remained unaddressed this year.
  • Bellardia: This is also un-assessed and unaddressed but doesn’t seem to be a major problem yet.
  • Others: un-assessed and unaddressed.

We still need to perform a systematic review of invasive species on these properties, but so far our efforts have been focused on removal of those that pose an existential threat to the existence of a diverse ecosystem. And so far we have our hands more than full simply trying to stem the tide.

Chasing the Star

Long-time sufferers of reading this blog know that we have been fighting a battle against invasive species. Not really a battle, actually, but a war of attrition. We just hope we can outlast them.

This season I made a rookie mistake of judging the extent of the Yellow Star Thistle (YST) too soon in the season. Seeing very little, I allowed myself to drift into a feeling of complacency and accomplishment. Then I went away on vacation for three weeks in July, just returning earlier this week. And wow, what a difference a few weeks made. We are far from out of the woods with Yellow Star Thistle. Yesterday I even had to do the unthinkable — leave some behind. My large contractor’s bag was simply too full. Today I returned and got that patch as well as many others. And that’s why this post.

I know we’re in a long game, and I know how it’s played — perhaps better than most. But anytime you set yourself a big audacious goal you’re running the risk of having periods of disappointment and depression. I’m having one of those now. Don’t worry, I’m not asking for sympathy or encouragement. I know what we’re in for, and I also know I’m good for it, and that this moment will pass, as it always has. But I want to take a moment to acknowledge that when you play the long game you’re going to have these periods of disillusionment, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up. On the contrary, they are to be expected and weathered just like the periods of euphoria and accomplishment.

Also, I know that the years of work are having results, just not as rapidly and thoroughly as I want. But I’ll be back out there tomorrow and the day after that. And YST: I’ll see you next year too, and the year after that. Don’t be late. I won’t.

Why We Fight

I’ve posted a lot about invasive species removal from the Overlook and Montini Preserve properties. Anyone but me would likely say too much, and who could blame them? Not me.

But in reviewing what I’ve written over the years about it, I realized I’ve never explained why we fight this fight. So now I rush to make good this oversight, and try to explain why I go out, nearly every day I can from January through July or beyond, and fight something that will very likely never be defeated.

First and foremost, it’s necessary to highlight the fact that species such as Italian and yellow star thistle will completely take over an ecosystem. You don’t need to go far to see this happening. The picture here was taken at the Sonoma Valley Regional Park, and shows how Yellow star thistle in the foreground, and Italian thistle in the background, have essentially taken over a meadow. This crowds out native plant species and even mammals.

Thistle creates a “no-go” area for wildlife, who avoid such patches until they can’t be avoided at all, and then they move elsewhere. This of course leads to a an ever-increasing monoculture and “dead zone” where only the invasive species thrive. “Invasive species are among the leading threats to native wildlife,” states the National Wildlife Federation, “Approximately 42 percent of threatened or endangered species are at risk due to invasive species.” This is clearly a serious threat that must be addressed.

The impacts of this monoculture are many. Wildlife doesn’t have the food sources they should. The lack of diversity in plant life affects the diversity of everything else — insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

Invasive species can also affect the chemistry of the soil, as well as the intensity of wildfires.

There are, then, many reasons why we fight this fight.

Recently as I walked along the main path in the Sonoma Valley Regional Park, I was in despair seeing the extent of Italian and Yellow star thistle invasion. It was heartbreaking to see. But I had to turn away, knowing that I have my own battle to fight on the Overlook and Montini Preserve properties. Thankfully, the Yellow star thistle is nearly eradicated on those properties except right along, and next to, Norrbom Road. But we have a long, long way to go against the Italian thistle, let alone Scotch and/or French broom and other invasive species that we have yet to assess, let alone seriously address.

In the end, we fight this fight because the alternative is so much worse. We fight because we love the native ecosystem and we believe deeply in saving it. We fight because we have no choice but to do so, loving these properties and trails as we do. Frankly, that’s the absolute best reason ever to fight for something — for love. So if you see me or my comrades out there, with a large bag and a glove, you’ll know what we are doing. We are fighting for something we love.

That’s why we fight.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Long-suffering readers of this blog are probably saying to themselves, “Oh no, here he goes again!” And that is perfectly understandable, as during invasive species removal season (essentially the first six months of the year), I’m obsessed with it. I admitted this nearly four years ago, and the disease sadly continues unabated. So here we go again. Buckle up, buttercup.

For years now, the primary method we’ve been using to fight invasive species (first Scotch Broom and Yellow Star Thistle, now Italian Thistle) is pulling. Early in the season we can just pull and drop the weeds, as they are not in danger of going to seed. But later we pull it, bag it, and carry it out. After years of doing this, and largely being successful against the Yellow Star Thistle (which has yet to be spotted on either the Overlook or Montini properties this season!), I’ve become discouraged at the progress against Italian Thistle.

Unlike Yellow Star Thistle, which grows only in open meadows, Italian Thistle will grow anywhere. It’s rampant on the Montini Preserve, although we may still have a chance at reducing it on the Overlook. For the last couple years I’ve focused on pushing it back from the Overlook Trail to prevent it’s spread. For some sections of trail I’ve also been able to completely eradicate it this season. I’ve noticed some progress from last year along the trail, but this must be compared to areas where it has now spread, mostly into areas where the Yellow Star Thistle had been cleared.

Although pulling remains the only sure way to reduce the extent of thistle, we’re getting close to the time when the seed is produced (some already has) and at my current rate of pulling there are going to be a lot of areas that I won’t be able to address. So I’ve decided to take a chance at cutting it. Cutting is typically not advised, as the thistle can still produce flowers and seeds after being cut, but I want to try it this season hoping that I’m late enough in the season that it doesn’t have time to regenerate — although the recent rains likely aren’t helping.

So if you see me out there channeling my inner Jamie Lannister, that’s why. I can cut a lot faster than I can pull, and there is still so much out there. We shall see if it’s effective or not, and make adjustments as the evidence indicates.

It’s all we can do.

Thistle be FUN!

We are doing some Spring Cleaning on the Overlook Trail. Volunteers have been pulling invasive thistle, repairing berms, and sweeping newly built steps. . . .we are almost “Ready for our Close Up!”

Opening Day is Sunday, April 28.

11:00 am is a celebration and ribbon cutting ceremony

11:30 is a steward led hike on the NEW TRAIL!

Come join us and enjoy the trail CLOSE UP. . .NO thistles in sight!

The Fungus Among Us

The rainy season is of course also the season of fungus, which thrives on damp conditions. The rains we have experienced the last few months has only spurred these interesting organisms to new bursts of growth. Just the other day, I was delighted to come upon a large patch of bright orange and yellow fungi (see picture of only two of dozens in one area) that had recently pushed up past the detritus of dead leaves and decomposed vegetation that comprise the forest duff.

The two kinds pictured above are of course just a couple of many, many different kinds of fungi found in Northern California. And since positive identification can be difficult if you aren’t an expert, you won’t find me climbing out on that particular limb. But that doesn’t meant that I can’t appreciate their diversity, color, and sheer exuberance in pushing up through a sometime thick layer of compost toward sunlight.

All of the pictures included in this post were taken on either the Overlook Trail or the Montini Preserve, so be on the lookout to see these and others now and in the coming days.