Forest restoration

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve

SḰŦÁMEN QENÁȽ,ENEȻ SĆȺ - “Taking Care of Sidney Island”

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve is working collaboratively with local First Nations, island residents, and the Province of BC to restore a...

Looking for information about SḰŦÁMEN QENÁȽ,ENEȻ SĆȺ (the Sidney Island Ecological Restoration Project)? Click here to reach the project information page.

Protecting a unique forest

If you have visited Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, you have seen one of the smallest and most at-risk ecosystems in the country: the Coastal Douglas-fir forest ecosystem.

Found only along the southern coast of British Columbia and parts of Washington and Oregon, this forest ecosystem is one of the most ecologically-diverse zones in Canada. These forests have been actively stewarded for millennia by First Nations, resulting in a globally-unique assemblage of species. This ecosystem is also located in the rain shadow of Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula, which means it receives much less precipitation than neighbouring areas. The result is a dry, sunny climate that is home to a number of rare and at-risk species , such as the Garry oak meadows.  

Unfortunately, this ecosystem is highly-threatened by human development, climate change, and invasive plants and animals. On SḰŦÁMEN (sk-thay-muhn, or Sidney Island), a herd of invasive fallow deer has almost completely wiped out native understory plants. 

In the face of these threats, Parks Canada is committed to working with neighbours and First Nations to ensure the long-term health of the Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystem within Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

Investigate further: read this interview with Parks Canada forest ecologist, Becky Miller, on the role of predators in the Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystem.

How SḰŦÁMEN (Sidney Island) was
Prior to European colonization, Indigenous Peoples regularly visited and harvested foods and medicines from the many islands in this area, including SḰŦÁMEN (Sidney Island). SḰŦÁMEN means "submerged by the waves" in the W̱SÁNEĆ language of SENĆOŦEN, and refers to the northern spit portions of the island, which are regularly hidden by the tides.

W̱SÁNEC knowledge holder ŚW̱,XELOSELWET Tiffany Joseph describes SḰŦÁMEN below:

W̱SÁNEĆ peoples once lived in the winter village of ȾELXOLU on what is now known as Sidney Island. The islets named by settlers as Sallas Rocks were known to the W̱SÁNEĆ as XEXMELOSEṈ long before settler arrival. What Parks Canada calls Eagle Islet, the W̱SÁNEĆ say is known better to them as SḰEḰEŦÁMEN. When W̱SÁNEĆ people would paddle from their villages on the Saanich Peninsula and were crossing to their villages in the San Juan Islands, JSIṈTEN says the people would take a stopover at W̱YOMEĆEṈ to take a break. W̱YOMEĆEṈ means place of caution. Perhaps this was a reminder to the W̱SÁNEĆ people to look after themselves in their travels. W̱IĆḴINEM says his elders would harvest ferns on these islands, which were said to grow to heights taller than the height of an adult person.

When you look at historical maps, you’ll see evidence of meadows, particularly in the area of what is now an airstrip. These meadowlands were places for W̱SÁNEĆ families to grow ḰȽO,EL , or camas. Camas was a staple food in the W̱SÁNEĆ diet. Many animals, such as deer, also enjoy the meadowlands to forage for food, and this was a prime opportunity for W̱SÁNEĆ hunters to harvest deer to feed their families. The wetlands would have drawn other hunters in the form of birds of prey like the hawks, and would be great habitat for amphibians.

The W̱SÁNEĆ Peoples’ experience of Sidney Island would have been much more abundant in biodiversity of plants, amphibians, birds, and insects. It wasn’t long ago that a person could lay in the fields among the hum of bees pollinating the meadow. Perhaps today you can still hear the frogs croaking during the WEXES moon (the second moon of the W̱SÁNEĆ new year). This moon tells us spring has arrived, and the flowers will be blooming, and that our canoe travels will be safer now that the fall and winter storms are over. These ṮEṮÁĆES (islands) are relatives of the deep, placed in the sea by our creator XÁLS to protect the W̱SÁNEĆ Peoples. XÁLS bestowed upon the W̱SÁNEĆ Peoples the responsibility to care for these relatives as well. Living on the islands, harvesting seafoods, meat, plants, and medicines, tending to the meadows with controlled burns, selectively harvesting logs for cedar longhouses and cedar canoes, and stripping cedar bark for baskets and clothing were all integral to the well-being of the W̱SÁNEĆ Peoples and every area of the territory.  


The impacts of invasive deer

Lush forest understory inside the deer exclosure.

Settlers introduced European fallow deer to SḰŦÁMEN in the 1960s. In the decades since then, fallow deer on SḰŦÁMEN (Sidney Island) have eaten their way through the meadows and forest understory (the layer of vegetation between the upper branches of the trees and the ground). In this photo, notice the difference between the dense shrubs that grow inside the fenced-off area where it is protected from deer, compared to the sparse vegetation outside the exclosure.

In the absence of native vegetation, invasive grasses and shrubs, like English hawthorn and scotch broom, have taken over. Many foods and medicines, which were harvested by First Nations for thousands of years prior to the arrival of fallow deer, are now rare or missing. Some of these plants include berry-producing shrubs like huckleberries, native blackberries, and thimbleberries, as well as deciduous trees like Pacific ninebark and mock orange. Fallow deer also outcompete native black-tailed deer, further preventing local Indigenous communities from harvesting preferred traditional foods. 

Parks Canada is working with partners to remove invasive fallow deer from SḰŦÁMEN. Permanently removing fallow deer is one step towards healing some of the ecological impacts resulting from colonization, and will be paired with active repopulation of native food and medicine plants, and eventually, the return of native black-tailed deer to the island. Learn more about the collaborative restoration project here

Managing invasive plants

Thorny English hawthorn is common in fields and along forest edges.  

English hawthorn (right) and scotch broom are two of the biggest invasive plant threats on SḰŦÁMEN. English hawthorn is abundant in many open or partially-shaded areas, particularly along forest edges, while scotch broom is primarily present in fields and sandy shoreline areas.

Invasive plants can impact an ecosystem in several ways. Invasive species often outcompete their native counterparts, and may alter the environment to make it less hospitable to native species. English hawthorn is a prolific berry producer, with each tree producing thousands of berries annually. Because it produces so many berries, and is much less palatable to deer than tender native plants, English hawthorn outcompetes native species that would otherwise occupy those spaces. 

Though it is challenging to completely remove an invasive plant species from any ecosystem, Parks Canada is working with partners to remove a significant portion of the English hawthorn present on the island and replace them with native trees and shrubs. Parks Canada also continues to work on scotch broom control in fields and on the spits, with support from partners and volunteers.

Restoring a native understory

Group of employees and volunteers planting native plants in deer exclosure.

A healthy understory is critical to a forest's overall health. Most of a forest's plant biodiversity is found in this layer. A densely-populated understory acts as habitat and foraging sites for songbirds, amphibians, and small mammals.

Parks Canada is planting a variety of native plants in fenced exclosures to start the work of native plant restoration. So far, ten exclosures have been built across SḰŦÁMEN and planted with over 300 native and culturally-important plants. These exclosure sites will act as a seed source for the surrounding areas and will help native plants re-establish throughout the forest. Over the coming years, exclosures will serve as control sites against which forest health can be measured. Exclosure sites in the park reserve may also be used as harvesting or teaching sites by local First Nations.

Additionally, Parks Canada is working with partners under the federal 2 Billion Trees initiative to plant at least 3000 trees and companion shrubs in this region by 2028. On SḰŦÁMEN, Parks Canada will prioritize rare or missing deciduous trees, as well as food-producing species. Many of these trees will be planted in areas where English hawthorn is removed, particularly in and around the campground.

Managing native black-tailed deer

A healthier understory with dense and diverse shrubs and ferns.     A bare understory with no shrubs or ferns.

Black-tailed deer are native to this region and found on many of the Southern Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island. Historically, black-tailed deer populations have moved freely between islands, seeking food and habitat. Natural predators like cougars and wolves, as well as Indigenous hunters, kept the populations in check. Today, with fewer predators in the region, and less access for Indigenous hunters, black-tailed deer are overpopulated in some areas—but differences in eating patterns and dietary preferences means that even when overpopulated, black-tailed deer do not impact forest health to the same degree as fallow deer. The photos above show the difference between the understory on Saturna Island (left), where only black-tailed deer are present, versus the understory on SḰŦÁMEN (right), where fallow deer are present.

The long-term vision for SḰŦÁMEN includes a healthy native black-tailed deer population. Once black-tailed deer have returned to the island, ongoing monitoring, paired with regular Indigenous hunting in the park reserve, will be undertaken to prevent overpopulation.

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