Milford team battles vines, rabbits in effort to restore Charles Island habitat

MILFORD — The Charles Island Restoration team never thought planting trees would become such a learning experience. Or that returning the island to its natural state would entail overcoming obstacles from nature itself.

Animal activity from deer and rabbits and fungal diseases have hindered volunteers’ efforts. But the biggest challenge has been the so-called mile-a-minute vine, according to restoration team founder Bill Pursell.

“In 2020, it was a pretty light year rain wise so invasive species, this mile-a-minute, did not exist,” said Purcell. “When we started to plant the trees in April and May of 2021, there was none out there. So DEEP (Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) was hoping that maybe it would happen again, and because the island is shut down from June 1 to Sept. 1, we didn’t find out until we were able to get back that it was horrendous.”

The vine grows like a blanket, up to six inches in a day, Pursell said.

“I’m not saying that’s how much is growing on the island, but it covers everything,” he said. “Unless you have a tree that is 4 or 5 feet, it will cover it.”

The team planted 17 trees in April of 2021, and when they returned in September, eight of them were covered by the vine, he said.

The volunteers responded with an all-out attack on the invasive species, clearing as much as they could. This year, Pursell said the plans are even more aggressive.

“We didn’t spray it all, and that was a key thing,” said Pursell. “It’s too invasive, and we got a commitment from DEEP that they are going to spray it all next year.”

When Pursell first started the restoration project, it was a family affair, but it has become Charles Island Reforestation, LLC, a registered 501(c)3 with multiple people volunteering. This was a surprise for Pursell because he initially thought fundraising and getting volunteers would be the hardest part of the restoration. But it turned out to be the easiest.

“We set up a nonprofit, and the money started rolling in, and I would never have believed it,” he said. “My wife put it up on one of the Milford Facebook groups, and I didn’t ask for anything, and people started calling, and I received 200 emails, as well as texts and Facebook messages.”

When he saw all the support, Pursell said he wanted to make sure he followed the rules regarding nonprofit agencies.

“I wanted to be registered with the USGS (United States Geological Survey), and once we went down that path, we set up the account,” he said. “When we went to go plant, we put out another post saying if anyone would like to go help us, and we got good support on that as well.”

Over the planting season money continued coming in, and volunteers continued to show up, he said.

Peter Piccone, DEEP wildlife biologist, said the volunteers were a key part of the restoration efforts.

“The volunteers were great,” he said. “They were very enthusiastic. They were a lot of great help. They provided a lot of assistance for us.”

The first thing the volunteers did was help remove all the vines from the plants, which was a lot of work, Piccone said. Once that was done, the volunteers shifted to other labor-intensive work.

“They helped us plant trees, extent the deer fencing near the planting area,” he said. “They were great.”

The volunteers’ enthusiasm for their community was great to see, he added.

“For DEEP, it’s a great partnership to have the community come out and be involved. It’s a citizen science project,” he said. “Ultimately, we are trying to restore the habitat on Charles Island, so the snowy egrets and other birds will be able to continue to nest and possibly have more on the island.”

When the restoration team returned in the fall, volunteers planted another 50 trees. Followup visits showed that some of the new trees had bite marks on them. This posed another problem, Pursell said.

“This wasn’t the invasive species. This was either deer or rabbits or another species,” said Pursell. “So now when we plant trees, we’re going to have to put guards up to make sure they grow.”

Another obstacle they had to overcome was the fungal disease that destroyed many of the transplanted trees.

“The smaller the tree that is planted, the more adaptive to the environment it is,” said Pursell. “But there are some trees like the red maple tree that were planted a little bit bigger, around five feet, and have done good on the island. So we’re going to be planting a variety of trees of different sizes.”

Overall, Piccone said the restoration team’s efforts had gone well.

“We have to see how the trees are doing next year, but they are looking good,” he said. “We are hoping to have another good planting season this coming spring, and overall, if we can keep the mile-a-minute managed next year and protect the plants from the rabbits, we’ll be in good shape.”

The goal for the restoration team in 2022 is to plant 200 trees on the island.

“I’ve started contacting the nurseries to buy trees and be ready for an April planting,” said Pursell. “We did a lot of prep work in the fall to be ready. We cleared out areas, set up fencing, so we are ready for at least 50 to 75 trees in the spring.”

Once the team finishes planting, Pursell said they will start doing the prep work to be ready to plant the rest of the trees in the fall.

“I think if we can do 75 in the spring, we can do 125 in the fall, but we also have enough area to plant 100 trees in the spring, so we will see what happens,” he said.