February 24, 2012

by Melissa MacDougall

The mere mention of Mexico easily conjures an image of snapshots of powdery sand, swaying palms and unlimited piña coladas. We think paradise.

We think pool-by-day and entertainment-by-night. While all of this is a Mexico-experience, there is something akin to a desert paradise waiting on our own doorstep.

Stretching northward from Mexico, we can see the similarities in weather, geography and species along the Sonora Life Zone. Sitting at the base of the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys we are met by the only semi-arid desert in Canada: Osoyoos, British Columbia, registering with the lowest rainfall in the country. Against the stigma that we're a nation of frigid temperatures year-round, Osoyoos steps up to the plate and tosses out that theory. Short, mild winters provide an even keel to the sweltering temperatures of summer, which escalate into the 40-degree range. Derived from the Inkaneep First Nation's dialect, Osoyoos is aptly defined as 'where the waters narrow'.

The weather may be one reason to visit this deviation to our polar status, yet beyond this, Osoyoos is layered with other elements that are unique in Canada. It may seem unlikely that a southern region in British Columbia can host semi-arid animals, foliage and invertebrates, however, the sight of this incredible landscape is proof enough. The rugged, dusty mountains strike out in all directions providing protection and shelter for the endangered ecosystem. Classified as the Osoyoos Arid Biotic Zone, most of us are unaware of the affects of the continued spread of civilization into interface areas; through growth in agriculture and urban developments. Antelope Grass, an already rare type of needle-and-thread shrub - steppe grassland - which was used by early first nations people to light fires long ago, has become sparse in its existence. Noticeable declines in many other native plants that are exclusive to this habitat are also a stark reality.

There are numerous mammals and reptiles also facing drastic alterations to their habitats. The expansion of developmental structures and land use policies of surrounding municipalities have posed a threat to 100 plants and 300 invertebrates species in total. Diversity can change in the blink of an eye. Since 2003, steps have been taken by Parks Canada to establish the feasibility of preservation of the grasslands just west of the city of Osoyoos.

Educational opportunities about the surrounding area and the specimens which inhabit the northern-most point of the Sonora Life Zone can be found all around Osoyoos. Self-guided hiking and biking trails lead to views of Spotted Lake - one of the planet's most mineralized pools; Mount Kobau and Mount Anarchist Lookout both offer a bird's eye perspective of all the uniqueness that this land entails.

Our intention for visiting Osoyoos may be to experience a lively resort town, and, with the summer heat, sun, and pleasant, dry air, its easy to imagine yourself in a place like Mexico. Stepping out of that perspective, even for a minute or two, we begin to understand the affects of urbanity and mass agricultural production on rare habitats and how important it is to preserve them.

February 24, 2012

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