Precious wetlands, old-growth forest and grasslands now protected as part of internationally significant conservation area in the South Okanagan

Osoyoos, BC (December 15, 2020) – An internationally significant conservation area just outside Osoyoos has just gotten bigger. The Nature Conservancy of Canada is announcing the addition of 126 hectares (311 acres) to the Sage and Sparrow Conservation Area.

Located fewer than 30 minutes west of Osoyoos along the Canada / U.S. border, Sage and Sparrow now encompasses over 1,500 hectares (3,750 acres) of rare grasslands and interior Douglas-fir forest at the confluence of the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. This area is within the traditional territories of the Syilx (Okanagan) Peoples.

The Sage and Sparrow Conservation Area is nestled within the provincial South Okanagan Grasslands Protected Area. The new addition extends the conservation area to the north, filling in a gap in a north-south conservation corridor in one of the country’s rarest and most threatened ecosystems.

This unique landscape represents the northernmost tip of the arid, desert-like ecosystem that extends through central Washington State. Sage and Sparrow provides essential habitat for 62 confirmed at risk plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else in Canada. Several species are listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, including western tiger salamander, southern mountain population (endangered), western rattlesnake (threatened), Great Basin gophersnake (threatened), Great Basin spadefoot (threatened) and Lewis’s woodpecker (threatened).

The new conservation lands span a diversity of habitats. In addition to sagebrush steppe and bunchgrass-dominated grasslands, the land includes some of the oldest stands of interior Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine forest in the broader area. Two large wetlands provide precious moisture in this arid landscape.n

Woodlands of trembling aspen offer nesting habitat for birds as well as cooling shade during temperature extremes for all wildlife. Snakes, gophers and mice make use of the pockets of rugged terrain scattered throughout the property. And the variety of terrain, micro-climates and structural diversity add immensely to the property’s conservation value.

The Sage and Sparrow Conservation Area is open to the public for walk-in access only. Click here for a bird’s-eye view of the new acquisition.

This project has been made possible by the contributions of many funders, including the Government of Canada through the Natural Heritage Conservation Program, part of Canada’s Nature Fund, Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sitka Foundation, Okanagan Similkameen Parks Society, Oliver Osoyoos Naturalists Club, South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club and many generous donors.

NCC received just over $266,000 from the South Okanagan Conservation Fund to help secure the property.

“The Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen is proud to be working with the Nature Conservancy of Canada to help protect the region’s natural heritage. Expanding Sage and Sparrow will provide greater security to dozens of at-risk species, in one of the province’s most unique landscapes.” Karla Kozakevich, chair, Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen.



Caring for the Land – “Pitching in to restore Ellis Creek”

Stewardship is the voluntary conservation and care of habitat and wildlife by landowners and community groups. Conservation organizations in the South Okanagan work with communities, schools, landowners and land managers to understand and care for nature on their lands, by providing information, technical support, and often “hands-on” help in conserving, restoring and enhancing natural areas.

There are over private 50 landowners in the Okanagan and Similkameen areas that work in partnership with a local stewardship society to care for approximately 3000 acres of wildlife habitat. These landowners are able to maintain agricultural, tourism and other practices while implementing best management practices for wildlife.

At Ellis Creek Basin in Penticton, stewardship and conservation organizations partnered with the TD Tree Days and the City of Penticton to restore the sensitive riparian area near the creek. Over 1000 plants have been planted here during two annual work bees that draw on the efforts of volunteers to bring back habitat for fish and wildlife that has been damaged.

Penticton Creek was once one of the most productive waterways for Kokanee and Rainbow Trout on the Okanagan Lake system. At one time it contributed to an extraordinary recreational fishery, and continues to be important to the Okanagan people (Syilx) who have fished, hunted and gathered plant foods throughout the territory since the beginning of time. The City of Penticton was built on the Penticton Creek flood plain and as a result, the early history of the community was marked with several major floods between 1928 and 1948. To prevent flooding from recurring and damaging the downtown, government officials began to convert the natural stream to a concrete flume that would quickly and efficiently carry creek water to the lake.

These flood control works in the 1950’s resulted in the complete destruction of fish habitat along the lower sections of the creek, and decimated fish populations and riparian areas. Now, the existing channel banks have begun to erode and areas of the concrete are beginning to fail causing concern and creating sudden maintenance issues and costs.

Today, we have a better understanding of the value of nature in our urban areas. Returning the creek to a more natural state will benefit fish and wildlife, improve flood protection, help with the aesthetic and social values of the creek and recover an extremely important fishery resource in the region.

In 2012, City of Penticton City Council struck a working committee with a diverse group of experts and community representatives to build a plan for Penticton Creek restoration, including a significant amount of historic research, ecological studies and engineering design. In 2015, a “showcase” area of the creek was selected and just over an 80 meter stretch was restored.

For the first time in 50 years, concrete was proactively removed, and in its place more natural materials like river rock, gravel, and native vegetation were put in. On the one year anniversary of the project, Penticton Creek saw one of the largest runs of Kokanee in recent years. This restored area above the Ellis Street Bridge, draws locals and visitors alike to see the return of nature to the urban center. The possibilities to bring back Penticton Creek to its former glory are endless.

From Bad to Rad

In the heart of Garnet Valley just north of Summerland, there was a dry, rutted field pocked with tire marks and dried mud. Old timers said this place used to be called “Ritchie Lake”, a healthy, vibrant wetland with frogs in the spring, green with rushes, wading water birds, dabbling ducks, and a source of drinking water for wildlife – a rare commodity in the dry South Okanagan landscape.

For thousands of years this wetland may have been known to the Okanagan First Peoples as part of their traditional hunting and trade routes. It was definitely known to Fur Brigade traders two hundred years ago with evidence of the route and camps nearby.

Unfortunately, within the last ten years or so, Ritchie Lake also became a popular hangout for a small, but impactful group of off-road vehicle drivers who illegally drove in and out of the wet area repeatedly – grinding up the vegetation and sub-soils.  It is hard to overstate the impact that “mud-bogging” can have on a sensitive spot like Ritchie Lake. The vehicle destruction, cattle use, a few dry years, and maybe disruption to water flows from the adjacent gas pipeline – caused Ritchie Lake to be in a sad state.

As one of the only potential wetlands of its kind left in Garnet Valley, and armed with a couple people who had memory of seeing it in is former glory – a group set together to “bring it back”.

A partnership quickly hatched between conservation organizations, a hunting club, the local rancher, and staff from the Province of BC. In 2012, with bit of money from the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, a whole lot of matching volunteer elbow grease, and many materials donated, the group built a fence to exclude off road vehicles and cattle, but allow wildlife access to the wetland. It took four full days with ten volunteers to get the job done.

One year after the project the results are no less than stunning. Where there was a rutted dry field, is now a wonderful wetland.  Water deep enough to flow over your boots and soak your socks. Reeds poking through the wet, dabbling ducks bobbing in the water, hundreds of dragonflies hovering, the deafening chorus of springtime frogs.  And, at the edge of the water, the delicate prints of mule deer mother and fawn, coming for a drink at a wetland restored just for them.