Wildlife At Risk in British Columbia
A brochure series which will eventually include brochures on other Red 
and Blue listed species, including fish, invertebrates and plants, and on 
ecosystems.  Produced by the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, 
Wildlife Branch, 780 Blanshard St. Victoria, BC V8V 1X4. For copies of 
this brochure, write to the Wildlife Branch. Funded by Corporate 
Resource Inventory Initiative and Ministry of Environment, Lands and 
Why are Garry oak ecosystems at risk?

Garry oak ecosystems are restricted primarily to the southeast coast of 
Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands. These ecosystems 
occupy only a small portion of the Coastal Douglas-fir zone, which 
itself comprises only 0.3 percent of the land area of the province.

During the last 150 years, agricultural and urban development has 
consumed substantial areas of the natural landscape. Overall, urban 
development has had a major impact. The largest continuous 
occurrence of Garry oak woodlands was formerly in the urban 
development centre of Greater Victoria, a region that is now almost 
completely developed. Parkland and meadows, once common in this 
area, are in extreme peril. The trend continues, with many 
developments imminent. Today, Duncan, Nanaimo, Hornby Island, 
Saltspring Island, and Comox all have Garry oak landscapes threatened 
by development. Although the death may be a slow one, construction 
near oaks can lead to tree fatality.  

Fire suppression has allowed Douglas-fir to invade areas once 
dominated by Garry oak. Overgrazing by domestic and feral livestock, 
including pigs, sheep, goats, cattle and horses, as well as introduced 
eastern cottontail rabbits, has caused non-native plant species to 
become dominant. 

These introduced plants spread widely after European settlement. 
Exotics, such as orchardgrass and sweet vernalgrass, may comprise over 
30 percent of the total species in Garry oak ecosystems. Rapid spread of 
Scotch broom has also replaced native plants, changed soil nutrients, 
and dramatically altered the make-up of these ecosystems. The 
increased rarity of many native species is another result of these 

A new peril to Garry oak is posed by the spread and serious impact of 
two introduced insect pests: the jumping gall wasp and the oak-leaf 
phylloxeran. The “scorching” of oaks by these insects results in a 
potential threat to the ecosystem. Scorched oaks may be mistakenly cut 
down as “dead,” when they are actually still alive. 
What is their history?
While deciduous woodlands may not seem as familiar to many British 
Columbians as coniferous ones, they are among the most common 
vegetation types in the temperate climates of the world. Before the ice 
ages, British Columbia also had a diverse hardwood forest, including 
oaks. Garry oak woodlands are thus an important link to the past. 
There has been an ebb and flow in Garry oak distribution between the 
ice ages. During the post-glacial period, the maximum spread of Garry 
oak occurred in the warm dry era, 5000 to 8000 years ago.

The advent of the current wetter, cooler climate changed the 
distribution of many plant species, reducing the range of some. This 
change in climate probably accounts for the patchy occurrence of Garry 
oak ecosystems and their associated species. Their ability to survive on 
rapidly drained soils, on steep south and west-facing slopes, and on 
sites with exposed bedrock, subject to periodic fires, accounts for their 
present distribution in today’s Mediterranean-type climate. The 
important exception is the deep-soil parkland of southeastern 
Vancouver Island.

Garry Oak ecosystems may have a special role to play in British 
Columbia’s adjustment to global warming. It is predicted that our 
climate will become like that of California. With Douglas-fir 
ecosystems retreating from their current range, Garry oak vegetation 
could provide the important biological material to repopulate the void. 

We can view the Garry oak vegetation complex as one that was 
conditioned by and adapted to a frequent fire cycle. Fire seems to be an 
important factor in permitting oaks to occupy deeper soils, where Garry 
oak vegetation might otherwise be outcompeted by conifers. Oaks are 
favoured over conifers, and herbaceous vegetation is favoured over 
shrubs by this fire regime. It is known that aboriginal people burned 
the vegetation throughout the range of Garry oak to help hunting and 
maintain open prairie. The resulting oak woodlands and open prairies 
were important to the aboriginal people for their bounty of usable 

Native deer were also important to Garry oak ecosystems. Black-tailed 
deer are still residents of the oak area, and Roosevelt elk formerly 
roamed southeastern Vancouver Island. It has been suggested that 
these animals helped maintain the open character of the Garry oak 
landscape by the suppression of some oak regeneration. Oak seedlings 
are repeatedly browsed and sometimes killed.
What is their present status?
They are going fast. Very little of the original Garry oak landscape 
remains in an unaltered state. They have declined dramatically in 
extent over the past two decades, and much of what remains has been 
strongly modified. There is growing public and scientific concern about 
preservation of the Garry oak ecosystems. One of several recognized 
Garry oak vegetation types, the Garry oak – grass community, has been 
rated as one of the most endangered in British Columbia; other types 
are rated as threatened. 
What are they?
Garry oak ecosystems range from southwestern British Columbia to 
California. These ecosystems occur within a distinctive climatic zone: a 
near-Mediterranean climate, shaped by the rainshadow of the 
mountains to the southwest. This is a region of moderate climate, with 
dry summers. 

In British Columbia, the Garry oak landscape includes a mosaic of 
woodlands, meadows, grasslands, scattered Douglas-fir stands, and 
open rocky areas. Irregularly wooded landscapes are called “parklands.” 
The term “meadows” describes the open areas, particularly appropriate 
in spring and summer when they are lush with bright wildflowers: 
blue camas, white Easter lily, and yellow western buttercup. Other 
fascinating species are satin flower, chocolate lily, and little monkey-
flower. Parts of the landscape also feature shrub stands of snowberry 
and ocean spray. Rock outcrops support scattered shrubby oaks, along 
with licorice fern, rock mosses, and grasses such as Idaho fescue and 
California oatgrass. These grasses evoke an image of the southern 
origin of the Garry oak ecosystems.

Within Garry oak ecosystems, the combined effect of vegetation and 
dry climate produces special soils with organically enriched upper 
layers. These dark-coloured soils, in marked contrast to the poorer, 
reddish brown soils of surrounding coniferous forests, favour the 
relatively shallow-rooting herbaceous understorey vegetation.

The open oak woodlands are home to a diverse bird community, both 
in summer and winter. Mammals from deer to mice are abundant, 
although the number of mammal species is lower than expected 
because many mainland species have not managed to colonize the 
islands. Sunny rock outcrops are a favoured basking place for garter 
snakes and alligator lizards, and a great variety of insects and spiders 
appreciate the warm climate of the oak meadows.
Why are they important?
Aboriginal people tended the Garry oak ecosystems, using fire and 
cultivation as management tools. The edible bulbs of camas and other 
species were the focus of the plant harvest. So important were these 
plants that the Victoria area was originally known as Camosun, or 
“place to gather camas.” 

The European explorers and settlers were attracted to the aesthetic 
qualities of the oak landscape. Superlatives from Captain George 
Vancouver include “as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly 
finished pleasure ground in Europe.” The oak landscape has continued 
to be important for aesthetics and as a contribution both to the sense of 
place and to the regional identity of Victorians. Emily Carr, esteemed 
west coast artist, grew up in the Garry oak meadows, and described our 
Easter lilies as “the most delicately lovely of all flowers,” with a 
“perfume like heaven and earth mixed.” Some feel that Garry oak 
groves should be preserved to “serve the whole community’s spiritual 
needs, as well as for themselves and the spirit they embody.” There is 
fond local appreciation of the spectacular wildflower shows that the 
meadows exhibit. Successive waves, in a palette of blue, mauve, white, 
and gold, rush through their spring presentations over a three or four 
month flowering period.

The value to society of the Garry oak landscape is now being 
recognized. Victoria City Council adopted a resolution recognizing the 
historic and ecological significance of the Garry oak ecosystem. Garry 
oak has been referred to as “our foundation native species.” Garry oak 
will be included in the tree preservation bylaws being developed by 
several municipal councils. The plight of the ecosystem has been 
featured in a number of local and national level media stories. Several 
local development proposals have been opposed by those wishing to 
save Garry oak landscapes. For the first time, a colloquium focusing on 
Garry oak ecosystems was held in Victoria in 1993.

The Victoria area has a high concentration of rare species when 
compared to the rest of the province. Garry oak ecosystems have been 
identified as a “hot spot” of biological diversity. In addition to the 
rarities they contain, the designation reflects their limited extent, the 
significance of their biodiversity from a provincial perspective, and the 
trend of accelerating habitat loss. Our position at the northern margin 
of the Californian flora results in a range of species that is one of the 
most interesting in Canada. Attractive, but now rare species such as 
Howell’s triteleia, golden paintbrush, deltoid balsamroot, and dozens of 
others highlight the importance of this biotic zone. 

Lewis’ Woodpecker, once a resident of the open, dry woodlands of 
southern Vancouver Island, disappeared earlier in the century. 
Concern is growing for the conservation of a number of other birds for 
which the ecosystems provide habitat, such as Cooper’s Hawk, Western 
Bluebird, and Band-tailed Pigeon. Nest-holes, acorns, and open country 
habitat are among the attractions which the oak woodlands provide. 
The rare, little-known sharp-tailed snake also inhabits these 

Many invertebrates, including robber flies, butterflies, and seed bugs are 
restricted to these sunny, coastal meadows. A subspecies of large marble 
butterfly has already gone extinct; the perdiccas checkerspot butterfly is 
no longer found in British Columbia, and Taylor’s checkerspot has 
been reduced to two populations, one of which is on Hornby Island. 
The propertius dusky-wing butterfly is completely dependent on Garry 
oak for larval growth and is considered a vulnerable species.
What can we do?
urther research and in-ventory are planned to improve our present 
knowledge of Garry oak 
ecosystems. In addition, further studies on management techniques to 
rehabilitate degraded sites is a major need. To understand today’s 
ecosystems we need to know about the past role of fire. To maintain 
the ecosystems, we need to develop strategies that use prescribed fire or 
simulate its effects. Continued research on insect pests of Garry oak is 
required; there are hopeful signs that native para-sitoid wasps may 
check the jumping gall wasp pop-ulations.

We have an opportunity to “think globally,” and “act locally.” Garry 
oak grows literally in our own backyards. The Garry Oak Meadow 
Preservation Society is sponsoring the “Backyard Biodiversity” 
program. It promotes keeping your remaining oaks, letting your lawns 
grow wild-flowers, and collecting and growing acorns. This program 
results in real conservation gains by reducing water use, pesticide use 
and storm sewer discharge. Concerned citizens can also join “work-
bees” to remove the introduced Scotch broom, which threatens the 
Garry oak meadows in many locations. 

Experiencing and appreciating the Garry oak landscape is the well from 
which motivation can spring. Get out and enjoy the Garry oak 
ecosystems. Their attractions are many, from the showy wildflower 
displays to the sound of crickets on a sultry summer evening to the 
serene beauty of an oak in its austere form silhouetted against a rising 
winter moon. 

Many landowners are proud of their oaks. It is important that they 
share that sense of pride with their neighbours. Talk to each other. Use 
public forums to raise conservation awareness. Help municipalities 
formulate and put in place tree preservation bylaws. Forestry Canada 
has co-sponsored a program for growing oak seedlings and will need 
volunteers at different phases of activity. “Good homes” will also be 
sought for the seedlings.

The B.C. Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks has two Ecological 
Reserves that have a primary focus on Garry oak ecosystems. These are 
the Mt. Tzuhalem E.R. near Duncan and the Mt. Maxwell E.R. on 
Saltspring Island. Other possible reserves are being identified. The 
Garry oak ecosystems will be included in the provincial objective of 
protecting 12 percent of the area of all the major ecosystems. 

The Conservation Data Centre, a provincial government program 
compiling information on rare and endangered species and plant 
communities, is evaluating the status of the Garry oak communities. 
They still need information about your local oak stands or meadows 
and have launched a cooperative project to map Garry oak ecosystems 
on eastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. 

These initiatives, in concert with strong public support, are needed to 
ensure the continued existence of Garry oak ecosystems in Canada.