The scraggly dark branches of antelope brush in the South Okanagan desert of British Columbia reach to the sky.
The brush grow in a pocket of dry grassland, an ecosystem that faces threats from vineyards, croplands and urban or industrial development. More than 60 per cent of this ecosystem has been destroyed and the remainder has been disturbed or invaded by foreign plants such as knapweed and cheat grass. Only 9 per cent remains undisturbed.
The antelope brush ecosystem does not have the high public profile of old growth forests, so it’s habitat is largely unknown. While the antelope brush desert lands carry south into the U.S., it is the pocket desert of Osoyoos that faces the largest threat.
Urban development is the biggest threat in the area that has more sunshine and warm days than any other part of Canada. Foreign plants and unmanaged livestock also contribute to the ecosystem’s threat.
Very little of the antelope brush ecosystem is preserved. There are two small ecological reserves north of Osoyoos and one of these was almost entirely burned in 1993.
The South Okanagan Wildlife Management Area protects riverside wetlands and dry uplands, including some antelope brush habitat, between Oliver and Osoyoos Lake.
The antelope brush ecosystem may not be as appealing to look at as vineyards and orchards and may even look like a wasteland.
But what looks like a wasteland is actually a miniature world of special plants, unusual insects, frogs, reptiles, birds and mammals. The brush is an important source of food for foragers such as bighorn sheep, mule deer and white-tailed deer.
The Osoyoos Desert Society is striving to protect antelope brush and provides an interpretive centre just north of Osoyoos off Highway 97. For more information visit www.desert.org.
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