BC’s new Species at Risk Plan: A National Park for the South Okanagan-Similkameen

The BC government recently released a five-year plan for protecting Species at Risk (SAR) in British Columbia, acknowledging the need to better protect BC, Canada’s most biodiverse province.

According to Minister of Environment Mary Polak, this plan “provides a clear and certain path forward for BC to show leadership in conservation of SAR”. While it’s uplifting to know that the government is looking more effective ways to manage our species’ populations, it’s essential that these ideas are followed with meaningful actions.

The Okanagan-Similkameen is one of BC’s most diverse environments, providing crucial habitat for 57 SAR, about 30% of all SAR in the Province.

The possibility of creating a national park in the South Okanagan-Similkameen has been under consideration for over a decade now, with the BC government left with the final say to facilitate further discussion that may finalize the park’s establishment.

The establishment of this new national park would substantially deliver on many of BC’s new goals, as it would ensure the improvement of species conservation through management at the ecosystem and landscape scale and encourage British Columbians to embrace stewardship of species at risk, two important “themes for success” expressed in the report.

The plan emphasizes the need to plan at the landscape level in order to ensure habitat connectivity, particularly in a changing climate where erratic ecological movements are expected. Currently, much of the Okanagan-Similkameen has been fragmented by different land uses, such as ranching and farming, urban sprawl and industrial use. Only one-third of the proposed area is under some form of official conservation, and what is protected is in patches across the landscape. These fragments are managed inconsistently, with little funding provided to ensure ongoing ecological health and restoration. Because many species rely on this region as a migration corridor, greater connectivity between these areas is essential. A national park would unite these divided lands and ensure vital habitat is connected, while providing a higher likelihood of health and longevity to many wildlife populations.

The report says “the best way to conserve wild plant and animal species is to prevent them from being at risk in the first place”. The decline of pristine grassland habitat in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys has kept pace with the growth in the human population. Less that 10% of historic grassland ecosystems are still intact. Many species in the area continue to be under great stress and are expected to decline. If we have any hope of conserving BC’s SAR and prevent additional species from being listed, action must take place immediately.

“All British Columbians have a responsibility to ensure species do not become more at risk of extinction” the report explains. The communication, collaborations and involvement between local stewardship groups, conservation partners, First Nations, federal provincial and local governments in the protection of SAR cannot be emphasized enough. The local First Nations groups (the Okanagan Nation Alliance), local federal and provincial politicians, four regional districts, four tourism associations and 20 environmental groups, have formally stated their support for the national park. Three independent polls have also indicated that the majority of local residents are in favour of the national park’s establishment.

A national park would create wider opportunities for locals and other British Columbians to become aware of SAR issues and other conservation topics, locally and provincially. Given the high level of support for a national park, it is expected that the community response and engagement to conservation efforts will be enthusiastic.

The report also expresses that legal changes should take place to better protect SAR in BC, and underlines the importance of legal SAR protection applied consistently across all sectors. This is an important goal. However the Species at Risk Act (SARA) is currently only enforced and applied to protect SAR on federal lands, not provincial or private, which make up the majority of lands in the proposed park area. The SARA also doesn’t provide legal protection of these species’ habitat, which is the most important consideration in planning for long-term success of a species. If a national park is established, populations of the 57 SAR that exist in the Okanagan-Similkameen would be granted legal protection.

We urge the Provincial government to act in accordance with the goals outlined in the plan. The Okanagan-Similkameen is waiting for more expansive and higher status protection to take place through the establishment of a national park.

BC’s Five-year SAR plan: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/atrisk/5_yr_plan/