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Conflict of interest concern raised for Sidney Island deer-cull contract

An animal-rights activist is raising concerns about a potential conflict of interest in the awarding of a Parks Canada contract to eradicate invasive fallow deer from Sidney Island.

An animal-rights activist is ­raising concerns about a ­potential conflict of interest in the awarding of a Parks Canada contract to eradicate invasive fallow deer from Sidney Island.

The $5.9-million project involves two marksmen in a helicopter and another two on the ground killing as many European fallow deer as possible over a 10-day period starting in the late fall. A year later, any survivors would be flushed out, contained using fencing and trained tracker dogs, and shot.

The contract was awarded to a company called Coastal Conservation, based near Salmon Arm, that specializes in removing invasive species from islands to encourage recovery of ecosystems. The company was also heavily involved in planning the project.

Jordan Reichert, West Coast director of the Animal Alliance of Canada, said the public should be concerned about the procurement process for the contract because it involves spending millions of tax dollars on an “unnecessary” process.

“If I was looking at that, and I thought of the cost of living right now, housing issues, you know, addiction issues, health-care issues, and Parks Canada is spending $6 million on helicopters to kill deer, I’d be pretty upset as a member of the public that money is being misspent,” he said.

Reichert lodged a complaint with the Office of the ­Procurement Ombudsman, which investigates complaints about contracts between the ­federal government and Canadian businesses.

While the office couldn’t take Reichert’s complaint because it doesn’t investigate contracts for services over $121,000, Reichert was told in an email the office was notifying the president of Parks Canada of the issue.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the procurement ombudsman said it would be inappropriate for the office to speculate on a file that did not fall within its mandate.

Documents obtained through a freedom of information request and shared with the Times Colonist show that Parks Canada staff raised concerns about the involvement of Gregg Howald of Coastal Conservation in the planning of the ­eradication ­project before his company was awarded the contract to carry it out.

“If Coastal Conservation gains financially or otherwise in some way from an approved eradication plan going forward, then Gregg should NOT be ­running this show — it’s a ­conflict of interests, and it could jeopardize the project,” a Parks Canada staffer wrote in an April 2020 email.

Coastal Conservation was awarded a contract last year worth a total of $724,500 to “develop, deliver and put into action an operation to eradicate fallow deer from Sidney Island.”

Howald directed questions from the Times Colonist about a potential conflict of interest to Parks Canada.

Kate Humble, superintendent of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, said by email that Coastal Conservation was awarded a contract to facilitate discussions between partners and provide technical information on eradication after a competitive process. The company did not have decision-making authority, she said.

The company then successfully bid on the contract to carry out the eradication project, Humble said.

Reichert questioned how the $5.9-million eradication project can be justified when the population of fallow deer isn’t known.

Parks Canada has said that while the population of deer, which were introduced to the island for hunting in the early 1900s, reached up to 2,000 in the 1980s, it doesn’t know the current number, although it estimates there are between 300 and 900. Some residents of Sidney Island say that after years of culls and seasonal hunting, the number is at the low end of that scale, around 300.

In a document obtained through FOI, Howald wrote that the number of deer on the island has been reduced dramatically and their impacts “are not really obvious.”

He wrote that it would be necessary to demonstrate to the community the ecological change on the island after the Parks Canada cull to “make the effort worth it to the community,” and suggests using people’s vegetable gardens or flower beds to show the benefits of eradication.

Humble said while 15,000 deer have been removed since the 1980s through ongoing hunting and culling, monitoring shows the current population continues to have a negative impact on the ecosystem.

“As long as a fallow deer population persists on Sidney Island, the ecosystem remains at risk. The recovery process of the ecosystem will take some years after the eradication is complete,” she said.

Parks Canada controls about 440 hectares on the north end of the island — including Sidney Spit — as part of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

Residents of the island, who own 1,500 hectares in 111 bare-land-strata lots, have long been split between favouring a mass kill and continuing to reduce the numbers of deer though seasonal hunting.

Property owners were given final say on whether the cull would go ahead, and voted 52 per cent in favour in March, although some owners did not vote.

Carla Purves, who spends about half her time at her family’s Sidney Island property, said the fallow deer were a significant problem when her parents first bought their property 13 years ago, but after a big cull in 2008 and seasonal hunting, there has been a noticeable decline in their numbers and the forest understory is rebounding.

She suspects the population of fallow deer is around 300, based on how much new growth is visible on the island.

“I have trouble understanding this sledgehammer approach, when there’s not really the same problematic level of overpopulation of deer as there used to be,” she said.

Coastal Conservation was involved in a similar deer-eradication effort on Haida Gwaii in 2017, focused on removal of invasive Sitka black-tailed deer. The project involved hunting from a helicopter, by boat and on the ground with dogs.

A report by Parks Canada says the project, which was eventually cancelled, did not succeed in removing every deer from the targeted islands, but the number was reduced to “low levels.”

Continued management of deer is required to maintain conservation gains, the report said.

Parks Canada is accepting public feedback on the deer cull until Aug. 23 via https://iaac-aeic.gc.ca/050/evaluations/document/152541.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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