If you have visited Gwaii Haanas chances are you’ve seen a Sitka black-tailed deer. These seemingly harmless deer were introduced and are an invasive species originally brought to Haida Gwaii in the late 1800s, they migrated into Gwaii Haanas throughout the 1900s. The deer browse their way through intertidal zones and the forest understory, eating culturally important plant, tree, and bush species.

In particular, the abundant deer population and over-browsing has negatively affected t’suu (cedar) on many islands in Gwaii Haanas. Cedar plays a huge role in Haida culture and is one of the species of importance recognized in the Haida Land Use Vision [pdf, 1.1mb] (2005)

Cedar trees are important to many other living things great and small. They provide habitat for forest creatures, some of which are an important feature of Haida crests and histories…
When a Haida person goes for bark, a pole or a canoe, trees are approached with respect. Their spirits are hailed in a song and thanked with prayer. A bark gatherer takes care that the tree will go on living.
Haida cultural plant expert Kii’iljuus Barb Wilson examines a cedar sapling.
Haida cultural plant expert Kii’iljuus Barb Wilson examines a cedar sapling.
© Andrew S. Wright

Starting March 2017, Parks Canada and the Haida Nation plus other partners will embark on large-scale ecosystem restoration project in Gwaii Haanas called Llgaay gwii sdiihlda - Restoring Balance. The project aims to restore the natural and cultural plant species decimated by years of deer browsing. Sitka Black-tailed deer will be eradicated from six islands: Ramsay, Faraday, Murchison, Hotspring, House and the Bischofs in order to encourage the regeneration of plants, animals and Haida cultural uses. Through initiatives like this - Parks Canada is achieving conservation results in support of the National Conservation Plan .

The main partner in Llgaa gwii sdiihlda is the Council of the Haida Nation as co-operative management partners of Gwaii Haanas. The Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Management Board directs the project with management and operations decisions. Restoring Balance will be implemented in a way that fits with future, long term Land Sea People conservation and cultural restoration planning goals.

A Sitka black-tailed deer browses some shrubs

Left: A Sitka black-tailed deer browses some shrubs. ©Andrew S. Wright
Right: A barren moss wasteland on Ramsay Island. ©C.Gill/Coastal Conservation

The threat

“Introduced, invasive species are the number one threat to the cultural and ecological integrity of Gwaii Haanas,” notes Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Management Board Member and Field Unit Superintendent Ernie Gladstone, “Eradicating deer during Llgaay gwii sdiihlda or Restoring Balance will help us achieve our long term conservation goals which are to strengthen Haida cultural activities and restore island ecosystems.”

Researchers have found that the ecosystem loss – from plants to animals to insects - from prolonged deer over-browsing does not stop unless deer populations are decreased or eradicated. In other words, the damage that deer are doing will continue to grow, directly contributing to a decline in biodiversity in impacted areas.

Besides Cedar, other species such as Hldaan (blueberry), Ts’iihlinjaaw (Devil’s Club) and Kayd (Sitka Spruce) are all favourite forage for deer. These plants, shrubs and trees have been used as medicine, food, building or artistic materials by the Haida people for millennia. Meanwhile, many bird and invertebrate species are fleeing the delicate island ecosystems over-browsed by deer. Introduced, invasive deer are one of the largest threats to the forest ecosystems and Haida culture in Gwaii Haanas.

© Andrew S. Wright

Restoring for future generations

The eradication will take place between March and July 2017. Restoring Balance will build on the previous good work of SGin Xaana Sdiihltl’lxa(Night Birds Returning) and Yahguudang dlljuu (A Respectful Act) to restore the flora and fauna of some of the islands in Juan Perez Sound. Deer culls will also take place along the southern shore of nearby Lyell Island to reduce the likelihood of migration over to project islands.

Llgaay gwii sdiihlda is one of the Parks Canada Agency’s Conservation and Restoration (CoRe) initiatives which aim to restore ecological integrity to nationally protected areas across Canada. Restoring Balance is a large and complex project requiring both traditional Haida knowledge, local skills and international expertise. Partnership between the Haida Nation, Parks Canada and a number of international invasive species experts will be key to the success of Restoring Balance.

The main partner in all these projects is the Council of the Haida Nation as co-operative management partners of Gwaii Haanas. Thanks to direction received throughout the project from the Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Management Board, Restoring Balance will be implemented in a way that fits with future, long term Land Sea People conservation and cultural restoration planning goals.

Other project partners include:

 

© Andrew S. Wright

©C.Gill/Coastal Conservation

The benefits

The eradication of Sitka black-tailed deer will have significant positive impacts for both Gwaii Haanas and other international island restoration efforts.
The Restoring Balance project will:

  • Enable the creation of a traditional medicine cabinet with diverse and culturally significant plants. People will be able to access more traditional medicinal plants as the forest understory grows back;
  • Contribute to the Council of the Haida Nation’s Land Use Vision by enabling cedar saplings to regenerate and possible monumental cedar growth for future generations;
  • Strengthen ecological processes and build ecosystem resiliency. By eliminating deer grazing pressure, temperate rainforest inhabitants such as native birds, mammals, amphibians, and invertebrates could return;
  • Build capacity for local hunters: Gwaii Haanas team members including three Haida will receive marksmen training from internationally renowned invasive species eradication experts;
  • Fill community bowls: deer fit to harvest will be processed and donated to community food programs (such as Local Food to Schools (LF2S) program and Meals on Wheels);
  • Improve the diversity of invertebrates, songbirds, and eventually birds of prey through providing them the complex habitat they need.

 


 
Plants of cultural significance predicted to recover:
Ts’uu - Red Cedar
Kayd - Sitka Spruce
K’aang - Hemlock
Ts’iihlinjaaw – Devil’s Club
SGiidllGuu - Huckleberry
Hldaan – Blueberry
Sk’idGan – Salal
K’ay – Crab Apple
Sgan sgawan – Skunk Cabbage

 
 
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Left: The Kunga plant enclosure in 1998, © RGIS.
Right: The Kunga plant enclosure in 2016. © Parks Canada / B. Catto

Next steps

During the process of Restoring Balance, there will be closures of certain areas around Murchison, Faraday, Ramsay, Hotspring, House, and the Bischof Islands. We will keep visitors, tour operators and Haida Gwaii Watchmen informed of all closures because visitor safety is a priority throughout the project.

In the meantime, Gwaii Haanas visitors can visit a native plant enclosure on Kunga Island, near T’aanuu Llnagaay to get a sense of how well the forest understory can recover. In 1998, a fenced in area was built to keep deer out and see how many plants and animals have come back including huckleberry, cedar, spruce and elderberries. If the regrowth at Kunga is anything to go by, the forests of the Restoring Balance project will flourish.

To learn more email the project manager: Robyn Irvine, robyn.irvine@pc.gc.ca

Llgaay gwii sdiihlda / Restoring Balance deer eradication closures

Want to learn more about our other ecosystem restoration projects? Visit: