Llgaaygwü sdiihlda

Photo Credit: Murray Foubister via Creative Commons

Llgaaygwü sdiihlda

🕔May 01, 2017

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and the Haida Nation are poised to launch a large restoration ecology project in Gwaii Haanas—the eradication of Sitka black-tailed deer.

On Haida Gwaii, the deer are an invasive species that were brought to the islands in the 1800s and early 1900s. “Invasive deer are the number one threat to the cultural and ecological integrity of Gwaii Haanas,” explains Robyn Irvine, restoration manager for Gwaii Haanas. The deer have no predators in the region and have become overpopulated throughout the archipelago. If you drive the highway or the logging roads near Port Clements you’ll see tens if not hundreds of the tiny deer grazing in ditches and on the forest undergrowth.

“They have had devastating impacts on native plants and bird species,” explains Irvine. The deer are decimating forest undergrowth, disrupting ecosystem dynamics and reducing cover for other mammals.

In response, the Llgaaygwü sdiihlda: Restoring Balance project aims to eradicate the deer on the islands of Hotspring, Ramsay, Murchison, Faraday, House, and Bischofs in Gwaii Haanas between April and September this year. Professional marksmen have already arrived on Haida Gwaii to train locals. The goal: reduce the population from 400 to 0. The culled deer will be processed locally and some of the meat will be made available to community food programs such as Meals on Wheels and the Local Food to School program.

Restoration interventions are usually based on historic knowledge of the area. But there’s often debate around what point in history to restore a landscape to. As nature continues to evolve, so do cultures; how humans interact with nature, even with invasive species, can change over time. What is of cultural importance in the past, present and future? And what point in history, if any at all, should we restore to? To better understand, deer exclosures have been built throughout Gwaii Haanas, giving a glimpse into an environment without deer. “They show the complex and diverse ground cover, shrub layer and young trees emerging from the earth,” says Irvine. The basic idea is to create a reference state and gain insight into what the environment could look, feel and sound like prior to deer introduction, and how native plants could flourish in the future. “The research done on Kunga Island by Jean-Louis Martin demonstrated that even within a small space, songbirds that had not been seen elsewhere on the island appeared in the enclosure when they had habitat,” says Irvine.

Eradication and culls have a history of being controversial. Plus, since restoration ecologists consider the societal and cultural implications of a restoration project, a complex values-based debate can ensue. “From the beginning, Haida cultural and community considerations have been central to the planning and development of the project,” says Irvine. In this case, she adds, many plants and trees important in Haida arts and culture could return to the area.   On the flip side, the invasive species itself currently provides community and cultural benefits. Over the last century deer have become a staple in local diet; hide is used for drums, and hooves for instruments. Which is part of why the deer aren’t being eradicated from all of Haida Gwaii. There’s a balance.

— Allison Smith