Orchard expansion in Canada’s wine country raises fears of damaging key wildlife corridor

Kelowna, British Columbia –

Just below the fog line hanging over the central Okanagan Valley, rows of saplings for a cherry orchard expansion stretch along the eastern stretch on Highway 33 outside Kelowna in the Kelowna wine region. Canada.

New cherry varieties and climate change in interior British Columbia have allowed the fruit to grow at higher elevations than usual. Soon, this grassland surrounded by mountains of ponderosa pine will be lined with rows of cherry trees along a sloping hill above this city of about 145,000 people.

On a recent morning, Dixon Terbasket of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band arrived at the gate of a 10-foot-high fence built last year. He gestured to a private property sign hanging on the fence of his ancestral land, a barrier to keep a soon-to-bloom orchard free of the mule deer and elk that once roamed this piece of land.

“The amount of development that’s happening so quickly and quickly that urban sprawl is moving into the wilderness,” said Terbasket, a wildlife technician with the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

The Okanagan Syilx are an indigenous people who have inhabited the Okanagan Valley in the interior of British Columbia for thousands of years. Its governing body, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, represents eight member communities, including the Lower Similkameen Indian Band.

The orchard expansion is about a third of a mile (0.6 kilometers) away from a wildlife corridor that acts as a crucial link for at-risk species moving through the region’s natural areas, from south of the border in Washington state to the province. dry interior.

While it did not immediately infiltrate the corridor, this new orchard has raised concerns that the development is pushing further into the valley’s natural territory. Terbasket and other experts are concerned that man-made barriers are already harming the corridor’s habitat connectivity, further threatening at-risk species and endangering the area’s biodiversity.

“Animals have to move across landscapes to meet the demands of their life history,” said Adam Ford, associate professor in the department of biology at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan and Canada Research Chair in Restoration Ecology. of Wildlife.

“Much of the land has already been degraded,” Ford said. “We’re clinging to the last ribbons of green around our highly developed landscapes, and that’s especially true in the Okanagan, where we have so much pressure from urbanization and agriculture.”

Home to more than 180 licensed grape wineries and known as “Canada’s Wine Capital,” the Okanagan Valley is also known nationally for its fruit orchards producing apples, peaches and cherries.

According to provincial documents, the cherry orchard expansion – approximately 343 acres (139 hectares) – is on land owned by GP Sandher Holdings Ltd., which represents Sandher Fruit Packers, a local family business.

While parts of the corridor are located in the eastern limits of the city of Kelowna, this orchard parcel is located within the Central Okanagan Regional District. A significant portion of the corridor, including this parcel, lies within the British Columbia Agricultural Land Reserve, where farming is permitted under the provincial Right to Farm Act.

“The conflict we’re going to find is between the right to farm agricultural land and the protection of this corridor,” said Dean Strachan, community planning and development manager for the City of Kelowna.

“Cherry orchards, under permits from the Agricultural Land Commission, have the ability to build high fences to protect their orchards from deer. But, as a result, it’s not just deer that are restricted to the land.”

Sandher Fruit Packers declined to comment.

Kelowna is one of Canada’s fastest-growing cities, growing from 127,380 residents in 2016 to 144,576 in 2021, according to the city. Recognizing population growth, its official community plan for 2040, adopted in 2022, calls for curbing urban sprawl to protect agricultural lands and ecologically sensitive areas.

Around Kelowna, between two provincial parks, Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park, the wildlife corridor is approximately 40 miles (64 kilometers) long and six-tenths of a mile (1 kilometer) wide. .

Wildlife such as elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and badgers have roamed it, and grizzly bears have been sighted. The corridor is home to other animals and berries, plants and medicines used by First Nations people.

“For grasslands that extend into British Columbia’s interior, this is a major hotspot,” said Scott Boswell of the Okanagan Conservation Collaborative Program, the organization spearheading a protection plan for the corridor with the Grassland Alliance. Okanagan Nation.

“This is a higher range of this ecosystem,” Boswell said.

The corridor was identified as a place that needed protection due to its unique ecosystem. Although outside its boundaries, the corridor runs adjacent to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a transboundary partnership dedicated to protecting habitats along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

The Kelowna corridor is located closest to the Sagelands Heritage Program’s transboundary conservation effort dedicated to shrub-steppe landscapes in the Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington.

“Ecosystems, if we want them to be healthy and resilient at the highest level, need to be connected,” said Sarah Hechtenthal, ecosystem scientist at Parks Canada and lead scientist for its National Ecological Corridors Program.

Parks Canada identified the Kelowna area and surrounding Okanagan Valley as one of the country’s 23 priority areas with a “significant need for connectivity conservation.”

Hechtenthal noted the area has more rare threatened and endangered species than anywhere else in the province. This includes badgers, burrowing owls, western rattlesnakes and dozens of others.

“Priority areas in this region are really under intense anthropogenic development pressure and are being fragmented, degraded, lost to agricultural development, resource extraction and urban expansion,” he said.

The orchard is outside Kelowna, on land owned by the Regional District of Central Okanagan.

The agency said residents and neighboring communities have raised concerns about ground movement, drainage and noise in the past. Another agency, the provincial Forestry Ministry, said it was investigating whether the orchard project channeled water from an unauthorized source, but declined to comment further.

While the orchard’s current expansion is outside the wildlife corridor, Brittany Nichols, development services manager for the regional agency, said Sandher “retains ownership of additional lands that extend into portions” of the corridor. She said an environmental assessment in the orchard development permit proposal outlines the company’s commitment to “environmental monitoring.”

Feeling the pressure of human development on the wildlife, health and connectivity of the corridor, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, the Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program and their partners developed a Wildlife Corridor Action Plan last year. past.

Fifteen actions, informed by tribal hunters and knowledge holders, in the five-year plan focus on their laws, principles and protocols. The plan is still in its infancy and Boswell said the groups involved are looking to get funding from the province and foundations.

“We’re not just talking about elk, we’re talking about an entire ecological system that filters our water, filters our air, that provides pollinators for all of our agriculture,” he said.

“It’s a bigger picture than just one species.”

Aaron Hemens is a reporter and photographer for IndigiNews, an Indigenous-run online publication in British Columbia.

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