Sensitive Ecosystems Inventory Project

Sensitive Ecosystems

For this project: ecosystem is defined as a portion of landscape with a relatively uniform dominant vegetation; sensitive ecosystems are those which are fragile and/or rare.


Vancouver Island’s eastern coastal lowland and adjacent Gulf Islands comprise an ecological region unique in Canada. The Mediterranean-type climate and long growing season support many rare species of plants and animals as well as a variety of productive ecosystems. It is also one of two areas in British Columbia where the greatest loss of natural systems has occurred and continues to occur. Intense development pressures throughout this region have resulted in the fragmentation and loss of most of these natural areas.

The Sensitive Ecosystems Inventory (SEI) project identifies the remnants of these rare and fragile terrestrial ecosystems to encourage land-use decisions which will ensure their continued ecological integrity.

Ecological Significance

The ecological significance of these sensitive terrestrial ecosystems is primarily based on their fragility and rarity, but also on the variety and number of species they support. Older forests - Forests older than 100 years are rare in this region. Structural features of these forests are important to many species including birds of prey, small mammals and amphibians. Woodlands - These ecosystems include open stands of Garry oak (the only native oak species in western Canada) and mixed stands of Garry oak/Arbutus, Garry oak/Douglas-fir and Arbutus/Douglas-fir. Urbanization has destroyed most of these woodlands and the few remaining sites are under constant threat of development. Woodlands support several rare plant and invertebrate species. Coastal bluffs - The ephemeral pools which occur in these areas provide critical habitat for several rare plant species. Coastal cliffs also provide valuable seabird nesting sites. Terrestrial herbaceous ecosystems - These areas are mosaics of rare coastal grassland and moss-covered rock outcrops. More typically occurring as openings in forested areas, these sites provide excellent habitat for butterflies, Black-tailed deer and the rare Sharp-tailed Snake. Sparsely vegetated ecosystems - These include rare sand dunes, spits and inland cliffs.

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In this dry region, wet habitats take on added significance, supporting a rich diversity of plants and animals; they also play a role in maintaining hydrological regimes, filtering out pollutants, controlling peak flows and maintaining water quality and temperatures. Since many of them are known to have been destroyed or altered, the remaining sites require urgent conservation or management to avoid losing the rich biodiversity of this region. Riparian ecosystems - These floodplains, lake shores and gullies provide an abundance of food, shelter and breeding sites for bird, mammal, amphibian and invertebrate species. Wetlands - These are essential resting, feeding and breeding sites for ducks, songbirds, fish, amphibians and rare invertebrates. Wetlands also support a variety of rare plants.

Two additional ecosystems were mapped for general biodiversity values. Seasonally flooded agricultural fields - These fields provide valuable habitat for overwintering waterfowl. Older second growth forests - Due to the paucity of older forests in this region, larger stands of 60-100 year old forest were identified as potential areas of future older forests. They also provide connecting corridors between other natural areas.

Although not included in this particular inventory, streams and lakes are equally important. They are vital to the survival of fish, waterfowl and amphibian populations as well as the associated aquatic organisms and vegetation upon which these populations depend. For further information on aquatic ecosystems and their protection, please contact the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) or the B.C. Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks.


The SEI systematically identified, classified, mapped and evaluated these sensitive ecosystems throughout the coastal lowland, from north of Campbell River south to Sooke, and including the adjacent Gulf Islands. The study area is located in the Capital, Cowichan Valley, Nanaimo and Comox-Strathcona regional districts and the Islands Trust area.

Approximately 9000 sites were identified in an area of roughly 5000 sq. km. The minimum mapping size for non-forested areas was one-half hectare. The minimum mapping size for forested areas varied based on age class and structural stage.

The initial phase of the SEI project (1993/94) involved the interpretation of approximately 3000 air photos (mostly at scales of 1:10 000 to 1:15 000) and the compilation of existing knowledge. The second phase (1994/95) consisted of field checking approximately 26% of all sites identified in Phase 1, to verify boundaries, classify, photograph and evaluate present conditions. The final phase (1995/97) involved compiling and editing all data, digitizing sites outlined on the air photos using the Mono Restitution method and producing digital and hardcopy maps. A technical report will be produced summarizing and analyzing the data.

A simplified version of this SEI data has been combined with aquatic ecosystem information, cadastral data and orthophoto maps by the recent Sensitive Habitat Atlas project coordinated by the Habitat and Enhancement Branch, DFO, Vancouver.

Data Limitations

The SEI data is intended to be used for a wide variety of land-use planning processes. For site-specific evaluations, more detailed

assessments are recommended. The accuracy of the boundaries of the mapped SEI data is limited by the scale of the air photos on which the sites are delineated. Enlargement of the data beyond the source scale may result in unacceptable distortion and faulty registration with other data sets. The scales and dates of air photos used for each map sheet are listed below; the air photo flight line numbers and photo centres are located on each map.

Due to the rapid changes occurring in this region, it is important to refer to the dates of the information sources. For those sites which were not visited, the accuracy of the data depends heavily upon professional judgement and available source material.

Participating Agencies

Environment Canada (Canadian Wildlife Service),the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund and B.C. Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks (Vancouver Island Regional Office, Nanaimo and Conservation Data Centre, Victoria) combined resources to conduct this project. Additional funds were contributed by B.C.’s Corporate Resources Inventory Initiative, B.C. Ministry of Forests, Capital and Comox-Strathcona Regional Districts, Provincial Capital Commission, Islands Trust and the municipalities of Nanaimo and Campbell River. Fisheries and Oceans Canada provided additional stream data to supplement the TRIM base maps.


Digitizing: Integrated Mapping Technologies, Vancouver.
Cartography: Clover Point Cartographics, Victoria.
Base Mapping Data: Selected digital layers are from the Terrain Resources Information Management (TRIM) Program, Geographic Data BC, Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks. Victoria, 1993.

For further information please contact:
B.C. Conservation Data Centre (250) 356-0928
Environment Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service

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