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Fallow deer kill essential to survival of Sidney Island: First Nations

Parks Canada tour shows how the understory has been nibbled down compared with lush neighbouring Portland Island

Tsawout hereditary chief Eric Pelkey remembers when the bracken ferns grew higher than people, Oregon grape and red huckleberry hung thick off bushes and the bunches of bright salmon berries signalled the return of the fish that sustains First Nations in the Salish Sea.

Seedlings of western red cedar, arbutus, maple and Douglas fir were sprouting over the forest floor, supporting insects, small mammals and songbirds.

But everything has changed on Sidney Island since the introduction of European fallow deer in the 1960s. Hordes of the invasive species browsed vegetation down to the dirt over the years, rendering the island’s coastal Douglas fir ecosystem “a dead zone,” said Carl Olsen, an elder of the Tsartlip First Nation.

“They have to go … all of them,” Olsen said during a tour of Sidney Island on Monday. “If we want to bring a healthy balance back to the ecosystem, we have to remove the invasive deer. I think people will be surprised how many of the native plants and medicine plants will come back.”

Parks Canada has awarded a $5.9-million contract to Coastal Conservation of Salmon Arm to conduct a mass kill using helicopters and expert shooters.

The killing is expected to start in December and continue over a 10-day period to get most of the fallow deer, whose population is unknown but estimated by Parks Canada to be 300 to 900. (Island residents say the number is at the low end of that scale, after years of culls and seasonal hunting.)

A year later, any survivors would be flushed out and shot using movable net fencing and tracker dogs.

Parks Canada and members of the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council led the media tour on Sidney Island to show how the understory has been nibbled down to a few salal plants and sword ferns.

In sharp contrast, on nearby Portland Island, a Parks Canada property without deer, there is a thick forest of mature trees, healthy saplings and a forest floor with dozens of plants, ferns and berry bushes.

Meanwhile, inside a roughly 12-foot-square fenced enclosure on Sidney Island, erected 35 years ago, native plants and bushes are thriving.

“What you’re seeing is a place that doesn’t have baby or teenager trees,” said Kate Humble, supervisor of Parks Canada’s Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

“We all know what that means for humans. Imagine what that means for a forest.”

Humble said there is also hardly any birdsong on Sidney Island. “It’s peak summer and you should be hearing lots of birds, but the silence is heartbreaking in this place. They’re just not here because there’s no food, no places to hide, no places to raise their young.”

Parks Canada controls about 440 hectares on the north end of the island — including Sidney Spit — as part of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. It’s leading the restoration initiative with the First Nations of the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council, the province, Islands Trust Conservancy and strata residents.

The rest of Sidney Island, about 1,500 hectares, is privately owned and partitioned in 111 bare-land-strata lots and open common area.

This spring, Sidney Island property owners narrowly voted to move forward with the cull, with 52 per cent voting in favour, the last hurdle to move the project forward. The owners have long been split between favouring a mass kill and continuing to reduce the numbers of deer though seasonal hunting.

But Parks Canada and its partners say the complete cull has to happen. Humble said hunting, in combination with substantial culls, led to 15,000 fallow deer killed cumulatively over 40 years, “but clearly it has not been sufficient to enable this understory and forest to recover.”

She said while several methods have been discussed to control the population, including contraception, the goal is to eliminate the fallow deer, not control them.

The decision to use sharpshooters came about in consultation with B.C. SPCA, said Humble, adding the contracted sharp shooters are skilled and some are trained veterinarians.

“This method will allow the deer to be dispatched instantaneously, as humanely as possible and in as efficient a way as possible.”

The shootings will take place on common strata land and Parks Canada property after the park is closed, she said.

Replanting native species and removing invasive plants, as well as First Nations training, are part of the $5.9-million contract. “Replanting will not take place until the fallow deer are taken away because you’re not going to invest in something that isn’t going to survive,” said Humble. “This project is about restoring an entire ecosystem, not just deer eradication. There is a bigger end goal.”

First Nations will harvest the meat and distribute it to elders and longhouses for ceremonial purposes.

Olsen said the fallow deer will be dressed in the field and moved to cold storage for butchering and delivery to communities.

Abraham Pelkey, elected chief of the Tsawout, said the hides will be delivered to drum makers and hooves used as ceremonial items.

“When something is taken we give it the utmost respect,” said the chief. “The deer are known as deer people to us, and we give them the respect to use everything.”

Those who oppose the deer-eradication plan may change their minds when they see the recovery of the ecosystem, said Olsen.

Pelkey said the restoration of Sidney Island is the focus. “Seeing it through the lens of the elders and my family, it’s about restoring balance,” he said. “It’s almost like a coming home for our people here. We have always been good stewards of the land. We need this time to restore our ways here.”

Native black-tailed deer will be killed in the operation, but are expected to repopulate the island, either by swimming over or potential reintroduction, said Humble.

Unlike fallow deer, which destroy plants by eating down to the roots, black-tailed deer tend to leave many plants alone or not eat the entire plant. The project partners are confident fallow deer won’t repopulate the island after the eradication.

Humble said fallow deer are “not great swimmers.” She noted DNA studies indicate the populations of fallow deer on Mayne, James and Sidney islands are not genetically intermingling with each other.

The restoration of the plant and tree species on Sidney Island is essential during times of climate change, said Humble.

The only seedlings taking root these days are grand fir because fallow deer aren’t eating them, she said.

“With an Island full of grand fir, which are extremely vulnerable to climate change and to forest fires, we run a very real risk of allowing a grand fir ­monoculture, which makes it sensitive to those risks.”

Becky Miller, a forest ecologist for Parks Canada, said with only grand fir able to grow beyond the seedling stage, “We are setting ourselves up for an extremely flammable future ­forest.”

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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