We are 30! From penguins to pond lilies…

Thirty years ago, a group of ecologists joined forces to try and enhance facilities at the ageing Stanley Park zoo, which had existed since the early 20th Century.  The penguins, wolves and polar bears were still a major tourist attraction, but their accommodation was outdated.

The newly formed Stanley Park Zoological Society soon expanded its work from captive animals to conservation for wild species like bats and to urban wildlife management – projects that are still part of our work today. In 1993 Vancouver residents voted to close the zoo meaning that the Society could focus all its efforts on conserving the Park’s habitat. With the newly refurbished Nature House as a base, the Zoological Society was rebranded as the Stanley Park Ecology Society in 1995.

Jennifer Swanston holding up a banner for the newly constructed Nature House at Lost Lagoon, reflecting new branding for SPES- circa 1995. (Photo: SPES)

The Ecology Society established programs in public education, wildlife monitoring and invasive species removal. The ‘Ivy Busters’ were born in 2004 and volunteers began to monitor the Pacific great blue heron colony.  Nevertheless, it took the 2006 windstorm to really define SPES’s conservation role in the park. The loss of 10,000 trees and the massive restoration effort after the storm required the kind of expertise that SPES could provide. The Society produced reports on the Park’s ecologically sensitive areas, planned ecological recovery and even steered the logging machines around areas where they could put breeding birds at risk. The shock of that event and the work of SPES, the Park Board, and a host of other stakeholders paved the way for a more thorough and scientific approach to preserving Stanley Park.

In the last ten years SPES has taken the lead in innovative conservation projects to remove invasive species like pond lilies, ivy and knotweed; to restore the Park’s threatened waterways and wetlands like Beaver Lake; and established conservation plans to protect the most threatened species.  

A SPES volunteer helps remove invasive blackberry from the Park. (Photo: Michael Schmidt)

Our school programs, which started out as a way to show off the captive animals to young people are now tied closely to the provincial curriculum reaching over 5000 students annually. And our public education programs have expanded in scope and direction to include unique offerings like taxidermy preparation, Indigenous plant walks and brewing bitters from native plants!

A happy taxidermy class participant holds a horned grebe. (Photo: Rose Gardner)

Conservation has come a long way in the last 30 years, thanks in great part to the army of dedicated volunteers who support our work, but there is still a huge amount that we need to do. The popularity of the Park means the environment is under constant pressure from human use, invasive species remain a threat, and the impacts of climate change are still not fully understood. As the forest grows – in 30 years a Western Red Cedar can grow from a tiny sapling to a fully-grown tree – SPES will continue to evolve to support the ever-changing forests, wetlands and beaches of Vancouver’s most beloved park.

Beaver Lake in Stanley Park, an urban oasis. (Photo: Michael Schmidt)


By Ben Hill, SPES Communications Volunteer

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