Can We Stop the Buckthorn on Madeline Island?

We’ve written about buckthorn off and on through the years, but I am not sure how clear we have made this:  buckthorn is bad. If you know buckthorn, you know what I am talking about. If not, let me be clear; if we take no action, within a relatively small number of years, the entire island understory will be buckthorn. And very little else. What buckthorn does so well is outcompete native plants for nutrients, water and light. It shades out almost everything else on the forest floor, disturbing wildlife habitat and, ultimately, preventing regeneration of the tall trees, the canopy. It is not fussy about where it grows and it spreads incredibly fast. It’s a disaster. And, because buckthorn is non-native, it has no natural controls and has proven to be nearly impossible to eradicate (did I mention that when you cut it back, it multiplies, and its roots are deep enough that you can’t dig it out? Oh yes). A lot of responsible environmental stewards have just given up.

What we have on Madeline is something very rare: that tiny moment in time where the problem has become obvious (dense stands on the Southern end of the island, a few patches on the North) but is contained enough that control is possible. And we are an island; we have the lake as a natural boundary which might keep the problem from returning (buckthorn arrived initially in nursery pots, sold as good hedge material. That won’t happen again). Control won’t be easy, nor will it be fast (I cut down a mature buckthorn hedge in my yard in the Twin Cities 14 years ago and I am still pulling seedlings!), but I am optimistic that, with persistence, we can get there.

The MIWP believes that buckthorn and barberry control is absolutely vital to the health of the island’s native plant community. Talk about your island’s natural heritage at risk! Over the years, we have taken different approaches to the problem: Tom Kromroy leading groups of determined cutters and sprayers; a boy scout troop; and a somewhat short-lived Americorps group. This year (2013), we are partnering with the town of La Pointe to hire an invasive species intern for the summer. We have hired Ethan Rossing, an impressive sounding Northland College Natural Resources graduate, who is going to be working in three main areas: cutting the stuff itself; developing a GIS data base to help us define and follow the problem better; and landowner awareness (we can’t do this alone). 

Preserving our island’s natural heritage. I think this is a pretty beautiful and worthy goal. The way we are dealing with the buckthorn threat—changing tactics when something doesn’t work, working with other island groups, planning for the long term—is a good model for how we will be able to deal with new environmental challenges in the years ahead.

October and November are good months to identify Buckthorn, since it remains green after the other deciduous trees have dropped their leaves.

October and November are good months to identify Buckthorn, since it remains green after the other deciduous trees have dropped their leaves.