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Endangered plants being 'trampled into extinction' at Oak Bay's Cattle Point

“The park is overused, misused and vandalized."
Wylie Thomas, left, and Jacques Sirois, with invasive crow garlic at Cattle Point. They are spearheading a campaign to put in trails to keep people from trampling endangered plants at Cattle Point. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Jacques Sirois kneels on the bank of a Garry oak maritime meadow at Cattle Point in Uplands Park, gently pulling aside some vegetation to reveal a flowering plant called tall woolly-heads — Psilocarphus elatior.

While it is an endangered plant, what is rarer still is that it has not been trampled by the sheer number of people who have visited the park since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The park is just being loved to death,” said Sirois, a biologist and naturalist. “The park is overused, misused and vandalized. The lack of a professionally designed tourist infrastructure, such as formal marked trails, some fencing or a boardwalk, means many plants are being trampled into extinction.”

That’s heartbreaking for volunteers, some of whom have spent 30 years helping to restore the park and remove invasive plants, only to see the fragile ecosystems they have revitalized reduced to gravel from overuse. “It’s like a bad movie,” said Sirois. “We have people stealing plants. We recently came upon an area where somebody buried their pet.”

Another problem is the lack of washroom facilities, he said. “When the busloads of tourists come, they find that there is only one porta-potty on site, so people sometimes relieve themselves in endangered plants. People drive their cars on protected areas just to take pictures. It’s a free for all.”

The trampling can also spread invasive species, such as crow garlic, which threatens local biodiversity.

Sirois has taken it upon himself to create a detailed plan for construction of a trail system, using his own money to commission a design from a landscape architect.

The trails would skirt Cattle Point’s 1.6 hectares of Salish Sea maritime meadows, an extremely rare plant ecosystem.

Uplands Park, which includes Cattle Point, is home to about 24 rare and endangered species of plants.

Many, such as the coast microseris and Bearded-Owl-clover, are considered species at risk. They grow in one of the last remaining fragments of Garry oak-associated ecosystems in Canada.

Cattle Point, off Beach Drive, is easy to get to, with a large parking area for vehicles and a pedestrian trail from nearby Willows Beach. With its easy access, busloads of tourists descend upon the park in the summer, with volumes higher when cruise ships are in town.

It’s also popular with birders, as the park is within the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary and a good viewing spot.

Over the years, the federal government, through the Habitat Stewardship Program, has given the municipality of Oak Bay funds to hire restoration crews to remove invasive species. The municipality also installed protective barriers around some sensitive areas.

Sirois said he recognizes Oak Bay faces competing priorities, and he isn’t asking for money.

“We just want them to give us the go-ahead. We will fundraise the estimated $500,000 cost to first design and then build the infrastructure.”

Wylie Thomas, a botanist and restoration specialist who created an Uplands Park and Cattle Point management plan for Oak Bay council, said the situation is urgent, “as we are in the process of losing a biodiversity hot spot.”

“We have plants here that are globally in peril. Around here, you can’t walk anywhere without stepping on a rare species.”

While Oak Bay has a management plan for Uplands Park and Cattle Point, it’s always a struggle to balance protection with public access, said Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch.

He said a recently appointed parks and recreation committee will likely review Sirois’ proposal in the fall then present it to council with its recommendations.

Oak Bay Coun. Hazel Braithwaite said that given all the conservation work by individuals and groups in the park — and the broad support of the community — it will be “easy for council to get aboard” when it comes to the proposal.

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