Grabbing the Thistle

Author, teacher and bioregionalist, Stephanie Mills offers our readers another in her series of essays on natural resource experts and their work in Northwest Lower Michigan. In this engaging profile, Nature Change readers meet Julie Christian, the new Chief of Natural Resources at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Julie Christian

Julie Christian and I met on one of those blindingly clear and cold mid-March days with a bayonet wind coming off Lake Michigan. Christian is the newly appointed Chief of Natural Resources at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Outside is where she’s liked to be all her life, pursuing broad interests in interpretive work and science. However “In the long run,” she said, as we stood in the biting wind on the Glen Haven beach, “biology won out.” So plant ecology became the basis of her career.

With a round pleasant face with a fresh air glow, its ruddiness matched by her coppery auburn hair, Christian, compact and projecting sturdy confidence, was clad in brown and taupe uniform wear, albeit with a practical NPS-monogrammed stocking cap rather than the classic Smokey Bear chapeau. That would have been gone with a gust the second she stepped out of her vehicle at the Cannery building.

The icy air was brilliant and the water was densely, gorgeously blue.  We walked a few dozen yards down the pebbly shore and came upon a silvery clump, a dead, dry, Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri). Christian plucked some of the feathery achenes from the plant’s seed head and let them fly on the wind.

Pitcher’s Thistle

The thistle, listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as Threatened, evolved to inhabit open windswept, semi-stable freshwater dunes, and is only found on the shores of the Great Lakes. It’s an endemic, one of those living beings that help define a bioregion. Because, in their individual lifetimes plants are stationary, said Christian, “they give you a sense of place … If you got dropped out of a plane and you turned and saw it you’d have at least a general idea of where you were in the world.”

There are also Pitcher’s Thistle populations in the Indiana Dunes and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshores and in other suitable habitat, some of it well protected, like Arcadia Dunes, and some privately owned. Some property owners regard the plant’s Threatened status as onerous government regulation. A savvy conservationist friend shocked me with the intelligence that in some reaches of our bioregion, for thwarting beach development, this plant is known as “Pisser’s Thistle.”

Still, according to the Field Manual of Michigan Flora it’s “a relatively mild thistle … Whitish foliage and flowers set this apart from all our other thistles, but they do blend well with the dunes in which it grows.” Pitcher’s Thistle sends down a deep taproot, takes about two to eight years to flower, then dies. The fragrant flowers draw a variety of insects, living members of a web of Great Lakes relations.

To “grab the thistle” means to contend directly with a difficult situation. When her promotion was announced Christian told the Leelanau Enterprise, “The Park Service’s mission is to preserve and protect our natural resources for future generations. To do that, you have to know what you have.” Given the scientific consensus that Earth’s sixth great extinction episode is happening on our watch, with species being wiped off the face of the planet at thousands of times the normal rate, taking on the responsibility to study and preserve the park’s biota while welcoming the visiting public is quite a thistle to grab.

A native of Green Bay, Christian is a botanist by training and a seasoned NPS professional. At 39, she has accumulated close-hand experience with the flora of many National Parks. She started with the NPS in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area before receiving her Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Later, from Hawai’i, she worked vegetation ecology projects within the Pacific Island Network and went on to do plant inventories and monitoring in the faraway parks of the Chihuahuan Desert Network.

Spotted Knapweed

Plant identification can be obvious (roses vs. sunflowers), pretty easy (Pitcher’s Thistle vs. Spotted Knapweed) or devilishly tricky (have you noticed there are fourteen species of violets in the Sleeping Bear region?) To identify a plant in all its life stages, from tiny sprout to look-alike blossom to desiccated foliage bespeaks botanical mastery, boundless curiosity, and a feeling for the organism.  In those fine distinctions and the wonder they occasion much of the richness we call biodiversity lives.

Once off the beach, sheltered from the wind at a picnic table near a clapboard building where we could unclench our teeth and talk, Christian allowed “I have known a lot of plants.” She returned to the Midwest three years ago to become the plant biologist at the Lakeshore. This was quite a biogeographic hop, but she said, “Everywhere I’ve worked there have been dunes of some sort.”

The near shore vegetation may be low lying and unshowy, but it’s the diverse and living fabric of the whole system. Countless insects, birds, and other wildlife depend on it in myriad specific ways, for it holds the habitat together. There’s more to these dynamic dune and beach environments than meets the eye. Dune plant roots play different roles, catching and releasing the sand by turns. (That’s why it’s so important to keep to the established trails and not trample through the plants.)

Baby’s Breath

Cirsium is a species that moves within the landscape as habitat conditions shift over time in response to natural dynamics,” notes a Park Service Cirsium pitcheri Handbook. Stable ground is not to the Pitcher’s Thistle’s liking.  Hence the threat posed to it by the invasive, long-lived perennial Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila paniculata) which develops hefty rhizomes that anchor dune sand and sends its dried flower heads gypsying off to scatter seeds and crowd out other vegetation.  Baby’s Breath, says Christian, changes the dynamic of the dunes. The Pitcher’s Thistle’s cousin, Spotted Knapweed has similar habitat-stabilizing effects and said Christian, with some understatement,  “can sometimes be disheartening.”

Whether in the interest of preserving biodiversity or controlling weeds, dealing with invasive species can be a Sisyphean task.  As far back as 1795 Vermont passed legislation to control the alien Cirsium arvense thistle, but, says the Field Manual, “aggressive plants, like aggressive people, can be no respecters of the law.” Invasive species control or containment is a complicated proposition, an inexact science. Scientists at the Xerces Society, dedicated to conserving invertebrates, are concerned that the agriculturalists’ war on thistles may be threatening the numerous insect and bird species that depend on their flowers, seeds, and even foliage. Christian mentioned an effort to control the invasive Milk Thistle that introduced a predatory beetle. The unfunny irony is that it may relish Pitcher’s Thistle for dessert.  Scientists are still figuring out how serious the unintended consequences may be.

Dune vegetation is just one of the Natural Resource Chief’s myriad concerns. Among other things the job entails supervising, administering, performing or overseeing a long list of activities to maintain the ecology of the Park’s many landscapes: Contending with invasive plant and animal species; restoration of disturbed lands, and of rare plants and animals and their habitat; monitoring water quality, contaminants, and air and water pollution; wilderness and endangered species management; coordination and communication with stakeholders, partners, and neighbors; mitigating visitor impact; along with basic administrative tasks like staffing and budgeting.

Meanwhile, the stresses on natural communities mount.

“Personally I’m a little terrified of what’s going on with the forest and the trees,” the high mortality from beech bark disease, for instance. Yet she says “I am heartened by Ash. There’s a lot of die-off but a large portion, about thirty percent, is in the ‘I’m not dead yet’ stage. Even if they weren’t resistant, they were fighters.”

“You just never know,” says Christian. “That’s where plants are interesting.”

Wherein does she place her faith?

“Nature.  Nature will figure it out.  We can help it along,” she says.  “What comes next may not look like what came before, but …” and pauses.

Then: “I put my faith in the people I work with. People are still interested in becoming stewards. Increased visitation means people are interested in going outdoors. As long as that interest continues, that means there’s value being placed on our natural systems.”

“There are so many things that you want to communicate to the public about the park; about this place,” says Christian. It’s a lot to accept, but from the grandeur of the dunes to the mild Pitcher’s Thistle, to preserve and protect the National Lakeshore is a noble mission, one we all can share.

[THANKS! to Julie Christian and the National Park Service for the use of the images in this article.]

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