Okanagan stewardship group saving at-risk species by re-planting their habitats

Planting to save species

Over the past month and a half, Okanagan Similkameen Stewardship Society employees and volunteers have planted over 1,500 plants in seven different locations around the North, Central and South Okanagan, aiming to revitalize the natural landscape for at-risk species.

OSS stewardship biologist Lia McKinnon said the yearly planting kicked off in mid-September as rain began to arrive, and finished just in time this week as cold weather started to freeze the ground.

"Almost all the plants this year are native riparian species, so they are all plants that like it a little bit wetter, the sort of plants you would find not directly in a wetland but right beside one," McKinnon said, meaning bordering a lake, creek or stream. 

"Riparian habitat loss is staggering in the Okanagan, both due to filling of wetlands for construction and urban areas and agriculture, but also due to channelization of the rivers," she said, explaining that according to the Ministry of Environment in 1998, an estimated 85 per cent of valley bottom riparian habitat had been lost at that time, leaving remaining water-dependent communities "highly fragmented and in poor health."

That's exactly what OSS has been attempting to reverse with yearly plantings, trying to get human-altered landscapes back to nature.

"So in Penticton for example, when they straightened the channel, they cut the length of the channel by about half. It used to be those sinuous bends, and all of those bends had of course native plants all around them," McKinnon said. 

"Seventy-five per cent of species living in the Okanagan either need riparian areas or use them heavily for at least parts of their life cycle."

The riparian zone is especially key for a number of at-risk species in the region. 

"Screech owls, they are quite small owls. They are kind of the size of a medium Tim Hortons coffee cup, and they really rely on the dense riparian forest. Also, some of our amphibian species like spadefoot [toads] and tiger salamanders," McKinnon said. 

Great blue herons, many species of warbler and flycatcher and deer also like these areas both for cover and food.

"I know many people aren't fond of insects but riparian areas are also great habitat for insects that are found at the bottom of the food web. These insects are critical for many birds, bats, shrews and predatory insects. Healthy populations of these insect eaters can also help to control some insect pests," McKinnon added. 

In normal years, the planting season is bolstered by big volunteer drives, but due to COVID-19, that looked a little different this year. But the OSS, a non-profit organization, is still looking for help in other ways, namely donations to keep on top of ongoing projects and new plans to continue their vision of stewardship for Okanagan valley ecosystems. 

Find out more about OSS and how to get involved here

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