The Ecologist's Nightmare

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We need “eco-volunteers” across the state to help us fight invasives.

Check out the Highlands list of the Least Wanted invasive species.

Find a comprehensive list of invasives at the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England.

Michael O’Connor is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Special Places and other publications.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Special Places, The Trustees' member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

 

For this cobble-keeper, it’s personal. the very idea of invasive species attacking the health and ecological integrity of his beloved Bartholomew’s Cobble keeps Rene Wendell up at night, plotting short-term counter-measures and planning long-term strategies.

by Michael O'Connor

“I do take it personally,” the Bartholomew’s Cobble Conservation Ranger says defiantly. “The Trustees’ ‘Find Your Place’ can sound like buzzwords, but it’s not hype. I found my place, and it’s here. And because the Cobble is so special, the idea that this could be lost means an overwhelming sense of responsibility.”

Wendell is referring to the Sheffield property’s status as a National Natural Landmark, which it received in 1971. These 329 acres along the Housatonic River in Massachusetts’ southwest corner are named for the two rugged knolls, called cobbles, which rise like a wild and mysterious centerpiece above the river. Yet Bartholomew’s Cobble also features a half dozen different forest habitats (remarkable for a property of its size) and more than 800 different plants, including almost 50 species of ferns nestled within the reservation’s shady recesses.

But invasive species such as garlic mustard, introduced from Europe by colonists as a food source, threaten to overwhelm the Cobble. Unlike many other plants, garlic mustard can grow in sun and shade, moist and dry conditions – and it even poisons surrounding soil to ward off competitors. Add to the list that it has no natural predators and you have what Wendell considers the biggest threat to biodiversity at the Cobble. “Garlic mustard’s capacity for exponential growth is amazing and impressive,” he says. “We don’t want to see it climb the cobble and get to the ferns.”

Wendell, the son of a hunter and trapper, grew up in the outdoors. His childhood experiences shaped his view that seemingly small changes can have massive repercussions for the natural world.

And in fighting garlic mustard and other invasives, he has adopted The Trustees’ “We Can’t Do It Alone” rallying cry: Wendell’s eradication program is largely the work of volunteers. “We’ve been fighting invasive species here for six years,” he says. “We can never have enough volunteers, because this fight will never be over.”

His view is tied to the realization that even if The Trustees make great strides in protecting our landscapes from invaders, nature is no respecter of man-made boundaries.

“Because all my neighbors have these same problems – but don’t always have the resources or resolve to solve them – when I look in the future I can see the Cobble probably being an ecological island of biodiversity,” Wendell says.

Someone like John Bottass, who farms 77 acres just south of the Cobble and hays the reservation’s fields, is a good neighbor to have, however. When Wendell and Bottass found themselves at odds over when to cut hay so as to both protect grassland-nesting bobolinks and harvest the hay when ripe, they worked together to reach a compromise that would meet both their needs. That solution may have convinced the farmer to protect his property with a conservation restriction – and to ask The Trustees to help.

“I developed good relations with the Cobble and now I want to preserve this land,” the 70-year-old Bottass says. “I don’t want to see houses, holes in the ground. I appreciate the land; The Trustees appreciate the land. And that’s the way I feel about it.”

Director of Stewardship and Planning Lisa Vernegaard echoes that view, and hopes to see many more John Bottasses working to care for land. “Our hope is that our visitors, our members, and our neighbors will join us in fighting these battles, not just on our properties, but on their own land as well,” Vernegaard says.

But saving one special place is just the start. The Trustees are thinking big because we have to. “We have to get to the broader landscape level,” Wendell says.
 
And not just for combating invasive species. Like many Trustees reservations, Bartholomew’s Cobble is home to a colony of hemlock trees, which are threatened in Massachusetts by the hemlock woolly adelgid (uh-DEL-jid), a tiny insect that literally sucks the sap from the magnificent conifer, ultimately killing it. And since an infestation was discovered in Worcester last year, Trustees ecologists, staff, and volunteers have joined the fight against the Asian longhorned beetle (pictured left), serving as an early detection team against the spread of the beetle, which bores into hardwoods (maples are especially vulnerable) destroying them.

Ecology Program Manager Russ Hopping says thinking broadly is critical. “It’s not just about one property or one watershed,” Hopping says. “We have hemlocks from Bartholomew’s Cobble to Pine and Hemlock Knoll [in Wenham].” In his office at the Doyle Conservation Center in Leominster hang two posters that reflect the key values of statewide land and water habitats. “It’s a constant reminder to always be thinking of the big picture,” he says.

At this larger level, partnerships can determine success or failure. Working with volunteers and community groups, ecologist Julie Richburg makes use of a series of posters to alert citizens of the Highland communities to be on the lookout for the “Least Wanted”: individual invasive species that threaten key habitats. Trustees partnerships are also showing success in species restoration. At the Lyman Reserve in Wareham, MassWildlife scientists have inserted tiny transponders in rare, sea-run brook trout to track their movements along Red Brook, which The Trustees are helping to restore. At Weir Hill in North Andover, The Trustees have worked with the local fire department and the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program in using controlled burns, or “prescribed fire,” to help restore habitat for certain rare butterflies, birds, and plants. 
 
“These are huge challenges, but we’re beginning to celebrate some victories,” notes Vernegaard. “We’ve seen the power of volunteers and other partners coming together to tackle these problems.”

The ultimate threat to ecological health, though, may be climate change. Hopping suggests Massachusetts is facing a new invasives
phenomenon: that of southern species migrating to New England as the earth grows warmer. “We’ve already seen it in birds, from cardinals and tufted titmice to turkey vultures. They may be the advance guard, so to speak,” he warns. “As for plants and insects, we really don’t know yet what’s on the way in – or the way out. We may be in the midst of a big turnover already.”

To prepare, Trustees ecologists are working to reduce current stresses on species and habitats. “It can be as simple as having a stream without dams,” Hopping says. “We want to make our ecosystems more resilient to climate change to assist the plants and animals on our properties to survive and/or adapt to the changes that are underway.”

For Bartholomew’s Cobble, such efforts are welcomed. Hemlocks, already stressed by the woolly adelgid, will suffer further under rising temperatures. And – wouldn’t you know it – the hemlock-killing adelgid hates the cold and loves the heat.
    
“We’ve already lost some beautiful hemlocks,” Cobble-keeper Rene Wendell laments. So, it could be a while before he starts getting a full night’s sleep.