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.

‘Don’t Look Up’ and Other Lessons From Invasive Species Removal

Pulling an Italian Thistle in its early stage.

At the risk of completely turning off our loyal readers (Hi Mom!), I once again sally forth into the area of invasive species removal, but this time it’s to describe some “lessons learned,” after years of doing this work. But if you read beyond this point you may want to see your psychiatrist. Just a friendly warning. Jump to the end of this post if you don’t believe me.

They’re called “invasive species” for good reason. Native plant species have existed in a particular ecosystem for many years, decades, even millennia. So when a new plant species is introduced into an area, the local ecosystem often has no defenses against it. This can (and often does) allow the invasive species the opportunity to completely take over the local ecosystem, thereby crowding out native species until there is essentially a monoculture. I’ve seen this happen. One of the first things to understand, then, is that this is a very real threat, and one that we have not always been good at fighting.

It’s not a battle, it’s a war of attrition. Don’t think that this is a battle that can be fully won. All we can hope to accomplish is to reduce the level of invasion to a manageable level and keep it there, or reduce it over time. We may be successful in keeping a particular species off the properties completely, with due diligence over years and constant vigilance, but we will likely never completely rid these properties of invasive species altogether. It’s just what it is. Know this going in.

Don’t look up. Invasive species removal is what’s called a long game — something that takes concerted effort over many years to reach your goals. Think of marriage, or saving for retirement — things that take work over long periods of time to achieve lasting goals. I’ve also called this being gently powerful, as a river is when it erodes very hard rock. The point about not looking up is that if you see the entire job before you, you may despair. But if you keep your head down, and only look at what is in front of you, then you have a chance at going on, and really making a difference in the long term. This is a real issue when it comes to achieving a difficult task like fighting back invasive species.

Look up. No, this is not a negation of the previous point, but merely the fact that sometimes it can really help to break out of the focus of the work you are doing and simply enjoy where you are. Look around, see the wildlife, fell the breeze, look off into the far distance, and just drink it all in. You are here for a reason, but you can also enjoy yourself at the same time. And if you are enjoying yourself, then you are more likely to keep doing the work.

Set achievable goals. When I first started pulling invasive weeds, I had no goals. I just went out and did it. But when I really took it on as a project, I discovered the need to set goals. Initially, in my ignorance, I set the goal of complete eradication. On the Overlook property, that ended up being achievable for the Yellow Star Thistle, since after 5-6 years of concerted effort, we seem to be getting there. But I’m not so sanguine about the Italian Thistle, so I’ve set the much more modest goal of eradicating it from the trail edge for now. Once that is achieved, another goal can be set. But don’t rush it, or you may fall into the trap of frustration.

Manage your discouragement. I don’t know of anyone who does this work who hasn’t had moments of feeling discouraged. Anything that is this daunting is likely to make anyone have feelings of discouragement now and then. How I handle it myself is I ask myself the question that is the verbal equivalent of “don’t look up” — “Are you making a difference?” Invariably, the answer is “Yes, I am.” And that’s how I turn discouragement into determination — by focusing on the small goal of simply making a difference. Just make next year better than this year or the year before. 

Don’t start at zero tolerance. Part of managing your discouragement is to know that in serious infestations there is no way you can get it all at one time. Don’t even think you can. Understand that you may need to hit the same general area one, two, even half-a-dozen times before you can feel good about it, and don’t sweat it. Only set an area to “zero tolerance” — where you pull everything you see — when the area warrants that designation. It may take you years to get to that point for some areas. It isn’t a failing. 

Know that there’s never just one. This is a rookie mistake – thinking that when you spot one invasive weed that’s all there is. As I’ve blogged about before, that is never the case. Just stop thinking that. As soon as you zoom in on that one weed, you will see others — perhaps many others. But there’s never just one.

Understand that not only is it not sexy, it’s not even remotely attractive. Much of this work happens off the trail, where no one sees you doing it. And even when you’re doing it on the trail, you’re sweaty, smelly, and sticking your big butt toward the trail. Believe me on this. It’s not a pretty encounter. Some of you reading this may have even been there, and can back me up on this. I’m sorry.

If you think you’ve won, you haven’t been doing it long enough. When I first started doing this work, I naively thought we could knock it out in a year or two. That was almost a decade ago and there are invasive species we haven’t yet addressed. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t had a serious impact — we totally have. For example, I am proud to report that we’ve essentially eradicated the Yellow Star Thistle (YST) from both the Sonoma Overlook and Montini Preserve properties, after years of work. Also, we have made a serious impact on Italian Thistle on the Overlook Trail property. So there has been progress. But there is also much further to go. Just don’t think we’ve won, because we never really do. But we make a difference, and that is important.

Don’t let one patch get you down. This is a lesson it took me a while to learn. When I found a patch of invasive weeds I thought I needed to pull it all before moving away. But I quickly realized that for my own sanity I would need to take a break, if it only meant attacking a different edge of the patch. Sometimes you just need to walk a bit and restart anew, and that is totally OK. These days, I only work on a patch until I feel like moving on, as I know I will be back tomorrow or the next day to fight it back farther, and eventually, over time, eliminate it. And that’s perfectly OK. Bottom line: only do what you want to do.

Use the seasons to your advantage. Invasive species have their own timetable, and some, like Italian Thistle, come in early, while others, like Yellow Star Thistle, come in later in the season. Meanwhile, you can get Scotch Broom pretty much any time. I’ve been pulling Italian Thistle starting in January, as it becomes to come in, which is a great time to get it, as it can be easy to pull from the wet soil and you can simply toss it aside, rather than hauling it out in a sack as you need to do later in the season. Later in the year I add YST to my itinerary, although as I’ve mentioned it is thankfully becoming more rare.

Beware of obsession.  I don’t know what to tell you about this. I just know that it’s possible to descend into obsession. Here is even a blog post about it. Just don’t let it happen to you. If you do, I’ll see you out there, and you’ll be welcome.

Lord help you. If you’ve made it this far then I feel for you. You may be in danger of catching the bug, which I’m not sure I would wish on anyone. Pretty much every day during Spring and Summer I ask myself whether I will hike or pull invasive species, and most of the time I choose the latter, as it needs to be done and I’m not sure who else will do it. Perhaps talk to me before choosing to do this. At least I will be able to give you the straight dope, and you can decide for yourself whether you are up to it.

No, I’m serious. Perhaps you thought I was kidding. I’m not. I really wish that I had not caught this bug. I see the people every day doing their hike or run and there I am, pulling stupid invasive weeds. Don’t be me. Take your hike or run and throw me a thank you every now and then. But I know it is actually pity, and I get that. It’s what I would do if I could. But I can’t. It’s too late for me. Save yourself.

Thistle Pulling Season Has Begun

Lately I’ve noticed that Italian Thistle has been coming up, since recent rains have kept the soil moist and we haven’t had freezing temperatures at night. In the past, I haven’t started pulling it until February or March, but I see no reason to wait. When the soil is moist it’s easiest to get it out by the root, and since there is no danger of it going to seed it can be simply tossed aside. Later, we will need to bag it and carry it out, which is no fun.

Although we’ve been making very good progress with Yellow Star Thistle (YST) after half-a-dozen seasons of concentrated effort, and we may actually be close to declaring victory (fingers crossed!), Italian Thistle has, in a number of cases, apparently been moving into the new territory cleared of the YST. This is alarming, as Italian Thistle is even more dangerous than YST, as it will grow anywhere. At least YST is limited to sunlit meadows.

Italian Thistle has essentially overrun the Montini Preserve, so my only goal there this year is to keep it off the trails so it doesn’t bother hikers. On the Overlook Trail property, I will start the same way by first concentrating on the trail edges, but then I also hope to be able to work on the Upper Meadow, as there are clumps there that threaten to spread and coalesce across the entire meadow unless it’s controlled.

So if you’re out on the trail and see what appears to be a gardener pulling weeds, it’s just me, keeping up the ongoing war against invasive species. Maybe say Hi.

 

Being Gently Powerful

You could say that I’m a treehouse nut, as I’ve never understood why most people think that treehouses are for kids. The fourth one I’ve built, is in my backyard — a three story monstrosity that tops out at 32 feet above the ground. In the “crows nest” at the top, you can see over our house and down across Sonoma Valley to Sonoma Mountain, and south down the valley toward Marin. The lower parts of the treehouse were built 13 years ago and the upper parts 10 years ago. Both are slowly being absorbed and warped in odd ways by the tree.

In one spot (pictured), the ladder leading to the crows nest has been slowly bent way out of its straight up and down position. Clearly if it had been warped that badly all at once, it would have shattered. But rather, the tree gently but persistently pushed against it, and it has slowly but surely stretched it into its present position. It is this aspect of “being gently powerful” that one sees a lot in nature. Trees can also break stone using the same technique of very slow but persistent pressure.

In a related example, on a river trip through the Grand Canyon you eventually come to a section deep in the canyon where the oldest rock is exposed. It is a very hard, metamorphosed volcanic granite and schist. And yet the Colorado River has not only carved it’s path through the very heart of it, it has actually sculpted it, with intricate and fascinating incisions (see photograph). These were formed not by one cataclysmic event, but by the very slow and constant caressing of suspended silt and sand by the river over eons. The river is being gently powerful over a very long period of time.

I’ve come to believe that is exactly what our efforts to clear the Overlook and Montini Preserve of invasive species needs to be like. We need to be gently powerful for many years. As I said to someone on the trail recently, “this is a program, not a project.” You could also call it a war, not a battle. But that’s a more violent image that I prefer to avoid. I prefer the idea of being gently powerful, as that is more like what it feels like.

Each day that I can get out on the trail during thistle pulling season I am blessed to experience the outdoors, feel the sunshine, sweat like crazy, and do something that I feel is meaningful. That feels like being gently powerful. And something that feels worthy in and of itself.

So the next time you see one of us out there pulling invasive species, think of us as a tree or a river — gently, but powerfully and persistently, pressing against what we oppose. It, too, will give over time, as all things that are gently, powerfully, and persistently opposed eventually do.

 

Vishnu schist photo by Al_HikesAZ, Creative Commons License CC BY-NC 2.0.

There’s Never Just One

Tripping down the trail today I thought to myself, “Oh, hey, there’s one!” I had spotted an invasive purple thistle plant at the trail’s edge (see pic). I stooped to pull it out.

As volunteer trail stewards, our remit includes not only maintaining the trails, but also helping the City of Sonoma to maintain their property that the trails traverse. This includes removing invasive species such as broom, purple thistle, and yellow  star thistle.

Purple thistle season begins in early Spring, which means we are already working to remove it. Later in the season the yellow star thistle will start to come in. Since we’ve been attacking the yellow star thistle for several years with vigor, we are seeing some real progress on eradicating it from the Overlook and Montini Preserve properties.

However, purple thistle is quite another story. Mostly due to years of cattle grazing, purple thistle has essentially already overrun the Montini Preserve. So at this point we only focus on yellow star thistle there. But on the Overlook, we think we have a chance to knock back the purple thistle so we are working on it as well. Since we only began our work on it last year, there is still quite a bit of it on the trail.

Today, as I stooped to pull the plant I had spotted I thought to myself, “Oh, wait, there’s five — no ten, crap, there’s a lot!”

I had momentarily forgotten that until the day when we reach the point of eradication — years, perhaps even decades from now (if ever), there’s never just one.