Nestled in southern British Columbia, between Pencticton and Osoyoos, the South Okanagan-Similkameen is a breathtakingly diverse landscape. Known as Canada’s ‘pocket desert’, it has three of B.C.’s four most vulnerable biogeoclimactic zones: Bunch Grass, Ponderosa Pine, and Interior Douglas Fir.
Within these biogeoclimatic zones, there are further endangered sub- ecosystems, including wetlands and cottonwood riparian areas. Less that 1% of these original habitats are still intact. This grassland ecosystem is one of Canada’s most endangered ecosystems, where more than 30% of the province’s species at risk.
This region has been recognized as an internationally important area for biodiversity conservation, because of it’s unusual ecosystems and species that call it home. The South Okanagan-Similkameen holds one of Canada’s three most endangered ecosystems and is home to 57 federally-listed species at risk through COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). Despite its relatively small size of 289 sq kilometres, the proposed park boundary would encompass an array of wildlife species found nowhere else in Canada, and some nowhere else in the world.
These unique ecosystems range into Canada from across the US border, where animals migrate from as part of their natural life cycles. This makes the South Okanagan-Similkameen an important corridor for species migrating up. Between the dry grasslands of interior BC and the desert areas of the Western US, migratory birds move to the Similkameen River Valley habitats in July and August to take advantage of the rich food there; they molt and put on fat before moving south again.
For more information on the importance of habitat connectivity, see this page.
Location of the Park
The 2010 Draft Park Concept developed by Parks Canada would stretch over 286 square kilometres between the communities of Oliver, Cawston and Osoyoos.
After many years of negotiations with local interest groups, the map below shows the boundaries of that park concept, finalized in 2010. It encompasses a significant amount of ecological diversity, after challenging restraints set down by the local public and landowners. This proposed boundary area is only one third of the original size that Parks Canada originally sought out to protect.
In 2015, when the government of B.C. announced a new protected areas framework for the South Okanagan-Similkameen, a significant portion (about two-thirds) of the Parks Canada proposed concept area had been removed from what the province was considering for national park status. The new proposal considers two smaller areas for national park status (Areas 1 and 3 on the map below) and the remaining area for provincial conservancy status. We believe that a national park for the region must include all three of these areas, with additional protections for areas east of Vaseux Lake and important connectivity between Area 2 and Area 3.
The South Okanagan-Similkameen is made up of ecologically vibrant landscapes, encompassing many sensitive ecosystems and species at risk. These environments and populations are now, more than ever before, defenseless against destruction and degradation from human presence.
The area has suffered many ecological losses already, including the burrowing owl, sharp-tailed grouse, and white-tailed jackrabbit. More than half of the antelope brush ecosystems in the area have been lost, with less than 10% of historic grasslands habitats still in their natural state.
As a result of local population growth, housing and subdivision development has greatly advanced. This development leaves the land unable to return to its once original state or able to support it’s natural balance and functioning. While the community growth and progression can bring many positive things to the region, it is also inadvertently converts vast areas of untouched grassland habitat into degraded landscapes.
The growing population has put a high demand on the surrounding environment. The region’s wine tourism has also greatly increased with much of the previously untouched grassland habitat converted to vineyards. This change brings about a wide array of environmental concerns. Some of these include depletion of nearby wetlands, alteration of ground water levels, and widespread use of pesticide and fertilizers leaking into natural ecosystems. Soil erosion and fragmentation of endangered species’ habitats is also a pressing conservation concern.
Ranching and Agriculture
Ranching, the other major agricultural practice in the Okanagan-Similkameen, has caused great stress and alterations to the natural landscape over the last century. These bunchgrass dominated grasslands developed under low-intensity grazing of small native populations of elk, deer and bighorn sheep. This type of grazing is much different than the prairie grasslands that evolved to sustain large bison herds and are more resilient to high trampling. The high intensity of the current and historical grazing pressures negatively influence the natural balance of these fragile ecosystems through wide-spread soil disturbance and compaction, leaving the land more susceptible to invasive plants to colonize. Some of these noxious species include knapweed, sulphur cinquefoil and cheatgrass.
Although the park concept area is currently in a natural state, it is unlikely that this area will remain this way for much longer. In order to maintain the high quality of life and experience in the Okanagan-Similkameen for our visitors and future generations, we must ensure that a significant portion is protected. The proposed national park area is one of the last remaining strongholds of pristine in-tact bunchgrass ecosystems in British Columbia. Let’s not loose our chance to protect it while we can.