Caldwell First Nation Chief Louise Hillier remembers frolicking on a beautiful southern Ontario beach as a little girl. It was quiet and the surrounding vegetation lush.
The serenity and peace remain, but much else has changed at Point Pelee National Park over the decades. Storms have eroded the point that juts south into Lake Erie. Rare species – like the prickly pear cactus that is found in only one other place in Canada – grow there, but in dwindling pockets.
Time has its way of beating down the park, says Hillier, who lived there as a child when cottages were still allowed. Despite the changes, Point Pelee, part of Caldwell First Nation’s traditional territory, still holds a special place in the minds of the members of the nearby First Nation.
“It just seems to have a healing presence,” she says. “And you can’t help but feel good.”
Band members have long worked with Parks Canada to restore the area.
On Friday, part of the restoration continues when about 20 band members along with Parks Canada staff will fan out across the point and start to cull a herd of white-tailed deer that has been eating its way through the rare forest and savannah.
This is the third iteration of the program, according to Lindsay Rodger, the park’s resource conservation manager. Preparatory work began in mid-December when a team went up in a small helicopter to count the deer. They found 84.
When they started the program in 2015, there were 192 deer in the park, Rodger says. In 2010, before they began a moratorium on deer culling, there were about 60 deer, Rodger says.
“That’s a short time for the population to triple,” Rodger says.
They hope to thin the population to 24 to 32 animals. That’s the range that research indicates is a viable number of deer – a number that will allow plants and trees to recover. In addition to the vegetation that is at risk, there is the risk of habitat loss for endemic animals.
“As an ecosystem, the whole habitat itself is very, very rare,” Rodger says.
“That means the species that depend on that habitat tend to be quite rare as well.”
The list includes the five-lined skink – a small lizard with cream-coloured lines that is at risk.
“It’s a great little animal, a charismatic mini-fauna as we like to call them,” Rodger says.
There’s also the red-headed woodpecker and the eastern fox snake, she says.
Rodger says they’ve seen anecdotal evidence of recovery in the last two years since halving the deer numbers.
“There has been some seed regeneration, but we need to give the trees time to start growing again,” Rodger says.
The deer cull is only part of the park’s restoration program. Parks Canada and Caldwell First Nation have also been methodically removing invasive species over the years. Last summer, they targeted garlic mustard.
As for the culled deer, they will be shared with Caldwell First Nation people and other First Nations, much of it for food, Hillier says.
“Last year, the pelts were donated to another First Nation,” Hillier says.
“They use them as a teaching tool to teach their youth how to tan the hides.”
For Hillier, the hunt is another reason to go home.
“I do go down and if they have sufficient hunters, then perhaps I won’t be hunting,” she says.
“I love to be there with the hunters. It’s time to be away from the obligations of being a chief and to breathe some different air.”