Expansion of orchards in Canada’s wine country raises fears that an important wildlife corridor will be damaged

KELOWNA, British Columbia (AP) — Just below the fog line hanging over the central Okanagan Valley, rows of saplings for a cherry orchard expansion span the eastern stretch above Highway 33 on the outskirts of Kelowna in Canada’s wine country.

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

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

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


EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and IndigiNews.


The Okanagan syilx are indigenous peoples who have inhabited the Okanagan Valley in interior BC for thousands of years. Their 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 wildlife areas from south of the border in Washington State to the county. dry inside.

While this new orchard will not immediately infiltrate the corridor, it has increased concerns that the development is encroaching further into the valley’s natural territory. Terbasket and other experts are concerned that human-created barriers are already affecting the corridor’s habitat connectivity, further endangering at-risk species and endangering the area’s biodiversity.

“Animals must move across landscapes to meet their survival needs,” says Adam Ford, associate professor in the department of biology at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan and the Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology.

“Much of the country is already degraded,” Ford said. “We are clinging to the last green ribbons around our highly developed landscapes, and that is especially true in the Okanagan where we are experiencing so much pressure from urbanization and agriculture. ”

The Okanagan Valley is home to more than 180 licensed grape wineries and is known as “the wine capital of Canada.” It is also nationally known for its fruit orchards that produce apples, peaches and cherries.

According to provincial documents, the cherry orchard expansion — about 343 acres (139 hectares) — will take place on land owned by GP Sandher Holdings Ltd., which represents Sandher Fruit Packers, a local family-owned business.

While parts of the corridor are in Kelowna’s eastern city limits, this orchard parcel falls within the Central Okanagan Regional District. A significant portion of the corridor – including this parcel – lies within BC’s agricultural land reserve, where farming is permitted under the provincial Right to Farm Act.

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

“The cherry orchard, under Agricultural Land Commission permits, has the ability to build high fences to protect their orchards from deer. But it is not just deer that is kept off the land.”

Sandher Fruit Packers declined to comment.

Kelowna is one of Canada’s fastest growing cities, with its population increasing from 127,380 in 2016 to 144,576 in 2021, the city said. The official 2040 community plan – adopted in 2022 – recognizes population growth and calls for slowing urban expansion to protect agricultural lands and environmentally sensitive areas.

The wildlife corridor, which stretches around Kelowna between two provincial parks – Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park – is approximately 64 kilometers long and 1 kilometer wide.

It is traveled by wildlife such as elk, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer and badgers – and grizzly bears have been spotted. The corridor is home to other animals and berries, plants and medicines used by First Nations peoples.

“For grasslands into B.C.’s interior, this is a major bottleneck,” said Scott Boswell of the Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program, the organization leading a conservation plan for the corridor with the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

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

The corridor was identified as a place in need of protection due to its unique ecosystem. Although the corridor is outside its boundaries, it is adjacent to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a transboundary partnership committed to protecting habitats along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

The Kelowna Corridor is closer to the Sagelands Heritage Program’s transboundary conservation efforts, focused on shrub-steppe landscapes in the Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington.

“Ecosystems – if we want them to be healthy and resilient at the highest levels – they have to be connected,” says Sarah Hechtenthal, ecosystem scientist at Parks Canada and chief scientist at the National Program for Ecological Corridors.

The Kelowna area and surrounding Okanagan Valley were identified by Parks Canada as one of 23 priority areas in the country with a “significant need for maintaining connectivity.”

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

“The priority areas in this region are truly under significant anthropogenic development pressure and are fragmented; demoted; lost through agricultural development, resource extraction and urban expansion,” she said.

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

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

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

Sensing the pressures of human development on the corridor’s wildlife, health and connectivity, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, the Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program and their partners created a Wildlife Corridor Action Plan that was finalized last year.

Fifteen actions – informed by tribal hunters and knowledge keepers – in the five-year plan are centered around their laws, principles and protocols. The plan is still in its early stages and Boswell said the groups involved are seeking funding from the province and foundations.

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

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


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


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