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In-depth

Protecting our natives
Habitat loss and invading exotic species are threatening what remains of the native vegetation found in the Garry oak ecosystem
By Kathryn Carlson

Learn more:
• Sidebar: Canada’s hot spots
• Let it burn!

External links:
Garry Oak Ecological Recovery Team
For Cheryl Bryce, the month of June has become a time to interact closely with her ancestral lands. She spends many of her early summer days kneeling on cool black soil, surrounded by a picturesque carpet of wildflowers and shaded under a canopy of craggy Garry oak branches.

She uses her hands to pull the round bulb from the native purple lily and turns the soil over itself, replanting the loosened seeds for the following year’s harvest. The edible bulb of a camas plant resembles an onion but tastes like a potato, becoming sweeter as it cooks slowly in a traditional earth oven or over a modern stove.

As lands manager for the Songhees First Nations, an urban band in British Columbia, Bryce is encouraging a revitalization of traditional food-gathering practices and a return to relating more closely with the landscape.


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Like a weathered hand raised in protest, the gnarled shape of the Garry oak tree stands as a symbol for one of Canada's disappearing ecosystems.
(photo: British Columbia Photos.com)
"We need to interact with the land and remember our past," says Bryce. "Harvesting camas bulbs relates to our identity and who we are as an indigenous people. It was once a staple in our diet and it’s important to our food-gathering tradition."

So important were these plants to the First Nations people that the Victoria area was once known as Camosun or "place to gather camas."

But Bryce’s family and friends may not be harvesting the bulbs for many more years to come. The indigenous plant grows only in rare Garry oak ecosystems, found in the Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island, two isolated groves near Vancouver and south into the state of California.

Only about five percent of Garry oak ecosystems remain in their natural state, landing 91 of the approximately 350 species it supports on the province’s list of species at risk.

"Most people think of this area as lush and full of greenery and for the most part, that’s true," says Tim Ennis, director of land stewardship for the B.C. region at the Nature Conservancy of Canada. "But the east sides of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands can also be very dry because of the rainshadow climate caused by the mountains."

This unique Mediterranean-like climate is an ideal growing environment for Garry oak ecosystems — home to more plant species, such as the camas lily, than any other terrestrial ecosystem in coastal B.C. and one of Canada’s most at-risk natural habitats.

"We need to interact with the land and remember our past."

—Cheryl Bryce, lands manager for the Songhees First Nations

Garry oak trees, the most visible tree species in the ecosystem, were named in honour of Nicholas Garry, once secretary and later governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the mid-1800s. But it’s not the deciduous trees themselves that are at risk, rather the ecosystem with which they have become associated.

The depletion of the once-abundant ecosystem began in the mid-1800s with the arrival of European settlers and the subsequent decline in land-management practices by First Nations people.

"In 1843, the Hudson’s Bay Company moved north to British Columbia and set up a fort there," explains Andrew MacDougall, assistant professor at the University of Guelph and former researcher at the University of British Columbia. "Within 20 or 30 years, much of the Garry oak ecosystem in the area was converted to pastures for grazing and agriculture or later developed as residential areas."

Today, Garry oak meadows exist in the shallow and exposed soil of valleys, rocky foothills and southern slopes — areas that weren’t appealing to settlers for agriculture or development more than 150 years ago.

Considering the ecosystem is what MacDougall describes as a "biological hotspot," all three levels of government are working together to acquire private land where the ecosystem exists, protect the areas that belong to conservation authorities, and educate the public about the need to save these species from becoming extirpated or extinct.

Only about five percent of Garry oak ecosystems remain in their natural state.

The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT), a partnership of a number of governmental and non-governmental agencies that comprise 22 individuals, was established in 1999 after the delegates of the First International Garry Oak Ecosystem Symposium met in Victoria, B.C. and declared the ecosystem endangered. Since then, GOERT has been working to motivate public and private restoration of the rare ecosystem and promote conservation activities.

Ennis, a member of GOERT, says that while neither Garry oak trees nor the species it supports have any immediate commercial value, the areas that remain are currently "under the gun" because of the unique viewscapes they create.

On Vancouver Island, progress has been made in acquiring private land where the ecosystem remains. Canada’s largest Garry oak preserve is an 18-hectare plot in the Cowichan Valley. There are two provincial ecological reserves on Mount Tzuhalem near Duncan, B.C. and on Mount Maxwell on Saltspring Island, where the federal government has allotted $30,000 to the Saltspring Island Conservancy for the purpose of protecting the island’s Garry oak ecosystem. In May 2003, parts of the picturesque Gulf Islands were officially declared a national park. Today, the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve covers approximately 35 square kilometers of land over 15 islands — an area rich with a variety of at-risk species including the endangered Garry oak ecosystem.

Aside from simply acquiring land for the sake of preservation, conservationists on Vancouver Island have also been testing out a contentious — yet traditional — method of restoration that may later be implemented in the Gulf Islands.

While the province is battling through yet another summer of wild fires, researchers such as MacDougall are experimenting with prescribed burning — a method of land management First Nations people historically employed and ended with the arrival of settlers in the 1800s.

"By deliberately razing the land, all that’s left is soil and a fresh start for the native species to grow again."

—Andrew MacDougall, assistant professor at the University of Guelph

"By deliberately razing the land, all that’s left is soil and a fresh start for the native species to grow again," says MacDougall, who has been experimenting with prescribed burning in the Garry oak ecosystem for about seven years for his PhD. "Much of the native ground flora in the rare ecosystem does very well with fires whereas the exotic species take much longer to replenish themselves."

Many of the exotic species that are negatively affecting Garry oak ecosystems were actually introduced to the area through human activity, including the invasive and especially problematic shrub called scotch broom, which is out-competing many of the native species — including the indigenous camas lily.

But Bryce is guardedly optimistic that human activity will no longer threaten the rare ecosystem but rather people will engage positively and consciously with the historic land.

She hopes both governmental and non-governmental agencies will work diligently to protect the rare Garry oak ecosystem so that she will be able to harvest the potato-like bulbs for years to come, sharing warm June days with her family and friends in one of Canada’s endangered "biological hotspots."

Next page: Canada’s hot spots »


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