If you’ve travelled to Sidney Spit on Sidney Island lately, you’ve likely noticed that parts of the National Park Reserve Lands are closed to the public.
That’s because the general public’s use of the park south of the day-use area has been restricted to allow fallow deer hunting by members of the Coast Salish First Nations. The closure has been an annual event since 2005 and runs from November 1 to the end of February.
According to Nathan Cardinal, the Resource Conservation Manager for the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, the program is part of a widespread practice within the national parks system.
“It happens right across the system,” said Cardinal. “We have hunting at Wood Buffalo Park, for example, and a series of other parks within our system … and the reasons are consistently a combination of respect for traditional hunting rights of the First Nations cultures and the benefit to the ecological health of the parks.”
In the case of Sidney Island, the ecological damage caused by the deer had been extensive. According to Peter Pearse, the author of A Natural Selection, a book outlining the challenges faced by the private land owners on Sidney Island, the deer have done tremendous damage on the tiny island.
“At one time, there were over 3,000 deer estimated to live on Sidney Island,” he said. “There were far too many and they were quite sickly. They also were the cause of a primary disruption to the forest.”
That number has been reduced to about half but the non-indigenous deer population continues to be a threat to the native plants and animals of the island.
According to Cardinal, research has shown that deer density below .08 deer per hectare is required to result in positive effects on vegetation, species diversity and songbird populations.
And while no one will dispute the traditional hunting rights of the First Nations people, the deer that are being hunted on Sidney Island are not the traditional game of the Coast Salish First Nations. In his book Pearse explained that the deer didn’t arrive in the region until 112 years ago.
“In 1902, the hunting club that occupied James Island imported European fallow deer from the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire, England,” he said.
Those resourceful deer would occasionally swim over to Sidney Island but didn’t stay due to a lack of fresh water. It wasn’t until some keen hunters dug wells in the 1960s and 1970s that the deer population stayed and exploded. Still, it’s only fitting that First Nations people are given the hunting opportunity and the chance to repair the ecology of the region, according to Cardinal.
“We’ve had requests from other hunters,” said Cardinal, “but we follow Parks Canada regulations on this matter and First Nations people have been living off the land for thousands of years. They respect the land and have a right to this opportunity.”
Cardinal estimates that there will be between 50 and 100 ‘hunting incidents’ during the park’s closure and said that special steps have been taken to ensure the safety of those people who continue to use the day-use area of the park, which remains open.
“We have law enforcement and park wardens on site to inform the public and ensure that the hunt is done safely,” said Cardinal. “We also have a great relationship with the First Nations hunters and they usually tell us when they will be in the area so that we can take steps to inform the general public for safety reasons.”
Normal Park access will resume on March 1.
— Tim Collins/News Contributor