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Invasive fallow deer to be eradicated from Sidney Island near Victoria

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W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations, Parks Canada and other stakeholders working on a restoration project to save a threatened ecosystem in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve are confident: To find success, a European deer species needs to go.

“They don’t allow anything to grow, anything to flourish,” says W̱SÁNEĆ leadership council coordinator, Eric Pelkey.

The hereditary chief of Tsawout remembers travelling to Sidney Island to harvest fern, thimbleberries, salmon berries and other plants. But Pelkey says they’ve become increasingly sparse or non-existent as an invasive fallow deer species browses the forest floor putting the ecosystem at risk.

“This is really an important place for us. A place for medicine. A place of food,” he says. “We have many, many stories of things that occurred here that are part of our history of Tsawout.”

The group of First Nations are a key partner in the effort to restore the forest ecosystem – and joined a Parks Canada-led media escort to the island to highlight the efforts and the cultural significance of them.

The tour also visited a neighbouring island where fallow deer don’t exist. Portland Island was held up as an example of the variety we should see, and traditionally existed, on Sidney Island before fallow deer were introduced in the mid-1900s.

“The animals that are here thrive because of what is growing on here,” says Pelkey on Portland Island. “And our people really want this to be brought back to SḰŦÁMEN (Sidney Island), really want our land out there to thrive.”

Right now, a forest ecologist with Parks Canada says Sidney Island is not thriving.

“Trees in the overstory are trying to produce seedlings,” says Becky Miller. “But they cannot grow beyond a year or two or several years of age before European fallow deer find them and eat them and they die.”

She spoke in a section where grand firs are the dominant species of the understory and she says that’s because it’s the least palatable to fallow deer due to the tree’s lack of nutrition.

The superintendent with Gulf Islands National Park Reserve says a monoculture is concerning for the state of the future forest.

“One of the big problems with this is that grand fir is really woody. It catches on fire very easily,” says Kate Humble.

“So if over time as you get these mature trees dying and you do not have a diversity of the species that make up a healthy ecosystem, you’ll end up with an island full of grand fir which are extremely vulnerable to climate change and to forest fire.”

For 40 years Humble says there’ve been efforts to control the fallow deer population through hunting and culls. Parks Canada estimates there are 300 to 900 left, with more than 15,000 killed.

“Clearly [it] has not been sufficient to enable this understory to recover,” says Humble.

Coming this winter, the partners involved in the project have agreed to eradicate the fallow deer population on the island in its entirety, likely beginning in December.

Humble says a team of sharpshooters are being hired, as was the selected approach in consultation with the B.C. SPCA.

“Sharpshooters are gifted, skilled people,” she says. “Many of these people are also trained veterinarians and so this is the method that is going to allow the deer to be dispatched instantaneously, as humanely as possible.”

W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations plan to honour the animals from there.

“When something is taken, we give it the utmost respect,” says Tsawout chief Abraham Pelkey.

Tsartlip elder Carl Olsen says the meat will be distributed amongst First Nations communities in the area. Other parts, such as the hide, will go to drum-makers or hooves used for ceremonial purposes.

“We actually believe in using everything,” says Olsen. “You give thanks for taking their life.”

Ultimately, they say it’s about restoring balance on the island.

W̱SÁNEĆ leader Eric Pelkey says they’re not planning too far out from the eradication process. Once it’s done, plans for the overall restoration will be next.

“All of the Gulf Islands, we call them ‘friends of the deep,” says Pelkey. “We have the responsibility to take care of them and they will take care of us.”

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