Protecting the remaining wildlife habitat across the Okanagan Valley is the long-term planning objective for the Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program. Image Credit: Contributed

Lake Country endorses saving wildlife corridor

Greenbelt connects Okanagan Mountain and Kalamalka parks.

Lake Country district council has endorsed a proposal to preserve a greenbelt corridor that connects Okanagan Mountain Park and Kalamalka Park.

The one kilometre wide swath of largely grassland that extends through Lake Country as part of the identified connectivity route between the parks is 14.9 kilometres in total area, with about 14.7 of that privately owned.

Most of the land strip is currently subject to agricultural use or open range, something the partners involved with the Planning for Ecological Connectivity in the Okanagan project want to see retained.

With Lake Country’s Official Community Plan currently in the midst of an update review, district staff said inclusion of the corridor is on the table for recognition discussion.

The Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program is a driving force behind this effort to protect natural biodiversity areas critical to wildlife and to sustain the natural landscape opportunities that makes the region’s population among the fastest growing in B.C.

An extensive valley-wide mapping project has been done to identify sensitive wildlife habitat and ecosystem areas either under threat or in need of continued protection and enhancement.

Other supporters behind this initiative include UBC Okanagan, B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, Westbank First Nation, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Real Estate Foundation of B.C.

Lael Parrott, a professor of sustainability at UBCO, told Lake Country council last week the landscape biodiversity that supports the Okanagan Valley ecosystem is at risk.

Escalating urban sprawl and climate change threaten the quality of life for residents, wildlife habitat and resource-dependent industries such as forestry, agriculture and tourism, Parrott said.

“My group, and our partners we are collaborating with, are looking for solutions as opportunities exist to develop differently than we have done in the past,” Parrott said.

“We hope to set an example in the Okanagan for the rest of Canada to follow. We don’t want our area to become another Toronto.”

Parrott said the Okanagan Valley only makes up .8 per cent of B.C.’s land area, but it contains 30 per cent of the endangered species in the province and 46 per cent of other species headed in that direction.

“The loss or fragmentation of important habitat are key reasons why those species are now at risk,” she explained.

“The Okanagan is the northern extent of the American Great Basin Desert, and our region will be an important haven for species migrating northward as the climate warms.”

She said the natural topography, large lakes and urban development will limit the opportunities for wildlife movement across the valley if environmental habitat protection measures are not taken.

The Kalamalka-Okanagan Mountain connectivity route is critically important, Parrott said, because it’s the last low elevation route below the treeline that bypasses the City of Kelowna.

Tanis Gieselman, OCCP projects coordinator, also spoke to council, saying the definition of environment planning is outdated, that the need for defining an ecological preservation baseline should be the top priority and how residential and commercial development fits into that landscape should follow.

“So it’s important to map out in detail and know what is out there in terms of habitat and work to protect it,” Gieselman said.

She said the connectivity route is a pilot project to see what tools can be used or might still be needed to have different communities come together in their planning processes to support the valley’s ecosystem.

The route, she said, would serve as a regional backbone upon which to further protect other local corridors in Okanagan communities.

Coun. Penny Gambell said community planning has never been more important than it is now in the face of increasing development pressures to address population growth in Lake Country.

“We can’t afford to make mistakes,” Gambell said about protecting the natural landscape.

“We see the mistakes made in the past and how unforgiving that has been, the long-term impact on wildlife. That to me is why we have some responsibility here to maintain the biodiversity that is essential for all of us.”