Chicago Bears helping forest preserves clear out invasive buckthorn near Halas Hall

  • The Lake County Forest Preserve District is partnering with the Chicago Bears to remove buckthorn, an invasive tree that can grow up to 22 feet tall. In the top photo, buckthorn grew quickly in the woodland area, harming native plants and wildlife.

    The Lake County Forest Preserve District is partnering with the Chicago Bears to remove buckthorn, an invasive tree that can grow up to 22 feet tall. In the top photo, buckthorn grew quickly in the woodland area, harming native plants and wildlife. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserve District

 
 
Updated 3/11/2022 5:00 PM

The Lake County Forest Preserve District has partnered with the Chicago Bears to tackle buckthorn -- a stubborn and widespread invasive species.

About a third of an acre next to the Walter Payton Center on the Lake Forest campus will be cleared of buckthorn at an Earth Day event in April.

 

The work is an extension of buckthorn removal from 1.5 acres of Bears property this winter and is intended to take the partnership up a notch. An action plan to combat buckthorn on the Bears' property is in the works.

"The previous work had been singular projects," said Matt Ueltzen, restoration ecologist with the forest preserve district. "We are hopeful that this new effort is more of a long-term partnership to help raise broader awareness."

John Bostrom, the Bears' senior adviser of operations and safety, said working with the forest preserves is important for maintaining the Halas Hall property and the sustainability of neighboring Middlefork Savanna area.

"We hope this partnership can help educate our fellow neighbors and fans in the area on the environmental impact this invasive species can have so they, too, can take action," he said.

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Visit lcfpd.org/buckthorn to learn how to remove and replace buckthorn.

Buckthorn is a pervasive, nonnative tree. It grows up to 22 feet tall in dense thickets, depriving native plants such as spring flowers or oak seedlings of sunlight. It also stunts the growth of other organisms by releasing a chemical called emodin from every part of the plant.

"Lake County is home to more endangered species than any other county in Illinois," said Ty Kovach, forest preserve executive director. "Removing nonnative, invasive species like buckthorn supports this diversity."

European settlers brought buckthorn to North American in the 1800s to use as fencelines and privacy hedgerows. But it spread quickly to natural areas and is found throughout the Midwest, the northern U.S. and in Canada.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Removing the stubborn nemesis is an objective in the forest preserves' 100-year vision.

In 2015, the district launched a pilot eradication project at Middlefork and encouraged about 700 public and private landowners in the area to do the same. The total target area is about 2,900 acres bordered by Interstate 94, and routes 176, 43 and 60.

Ueltzen said a program to help private landowners to control buckthorn on their properties began in 2018. The district paid 50% of the cost and a private donation covered the remainder.

The program was successful, Ueltzen said, and became a model for having a greater impact on buckthorn-infested lands. A grant was secured and the effort beefed up to provide cost sharing to a larger group.

Though slowed by COVID, the district has worked with landowners on about 20 sites.

The district has spent a lot of time and money to control buckthorn and other invasives at Middlefork, Ueltzen said. But the effort was blunted as birds ate the berries from unmanaged buckthorn in neighboring areas and reinfected Middlefork.

"We have learned that we need to not only look inward to solve this problem but also outward and engage our neighbors in this management effort," he said. The Bears were are an obvious potential partner, he added.

The district worked with the Bears to clear buckthorn from an 8-acre section in Middlefork that required access through Bears' property, Ueltzen said. They partnered again this winter to clear 1.5 acres on the property.

The collaboration has been extended and the district will co-host an Earth Day event at Halas Hall.

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