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Desert Society News

April 2014
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April 26-May 15 10:00am-2:00pm
May 16-Sept 15 9:30am-4:30pm
Sept 16-early Oct 10:00am-2:00pm 
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Dear Supporters:

It's hard to believe, but another winter has come and gone and spring is here once again. As the saying goes, time flies! That adage is certainly true for the Osoyoos Desert Society as well. Our non-profit organization has now been in existence for nearly 25 years. The Desert Society was officially formed on March 4, 1991, thanks to a dedicated group of community volunteers. Since then, it has continued to grow and thrive because of the commitment and on-going support of our membership. Our members play a major role in the continued success of the Desert Society and are, in fact, essential to its survival. Members provide financial support for our habitat restoration projects and our educational programs, including the Society's annual Winter Program Series. They also form the basis of our volunteer corps - a dedicated team of nearly 60 individuals who generously lend a hand with front desk reception, site maintenance, fundraising events, and countless other endeavours which make the operation of the Desert Centre and the Desert Society possible.


In addition to financial and volunteer support, our members promote our efforts and give import to our mission. They also help give a voice to the region's imperilled antelope-brush habitat. The value of that contribution cannot be overstated. Our local habitat is home to an incredible diversity of plants and animals, and is one of the most biologically rich ecosystems in Canada. It is also, unfortunately, one of the most endangered habitats in the country. Your membership support makes a difference by helping to protect the natural spaces we all treasure.


If you have already renewed your Desert Society membership for the current year, we are immensely grateful for your support. If you are not currently a member, we hope you will consider joining the Society and becoming a partner in our habitat conservation, restoration and education efforts. As the featured article in this newsletter reminds us, "As stewards of this valuable landscape we all play an important role in its protection and future survival."

Mat Hassen,
President, Osoyoos Desert Society

The Seeds of a Solution

by Tanis Gieselman, M.Sc.


As Osoyoos Desert Society members, I'm sure I don't have to tell you about how important and amazing the Okanagan drylands are. You no doubt have already discovered, as I did growing up in the Central Okanagan, the magic of this unique, heat-adapted habitat. Like you, I wanted to do something to help protect it from disappearing.


I decided the best way that I could help was to study biology. I am especially fond of the plants, so I focussed my classes to learn as much as I could about them. Plants are an essential part of a balanced ecosystem after all! In my last year at college, I learned about the seed conservation programs in England at the Millennium Seed Bank. I hoped to attend the Master's program they were offering, but the cost of studying overseas and an opportunity to do Master's research at UBC in Vancouver kept me in Canada.


My M.Sc. research led me to live for a whole summer in a trailer in the parking lot at the Osoyoos Desert Centre, with several other students (and a few mice). Spending a summer doing research in the South Okanagan grasslands was an adventure, and I learned a lot about grassland ecology and how the plant community responds to various types of human development(1). It turns out that hidden effects on plants and soil chemistry actually extend past the edges of developed areas into the surrounding grasslands, and the integrity of this habitat erodes with each new developed edge that is created.


So what do we do about it? Many people in the South Okanagan are doing a great job working together to secure sensitive habitat for conservancy and parks. However, not all land can be set aside, so what about the land that is developed? How do we bring conservation to human landscapes?


When a landscape is developed, we currently do little to salvage and relocate native species disturbed as a result. Plants native to the Okanagan are highly drought resistant, so using them to landscape post-development would help conserve existing populations and reduce water requirements for yard maintenance. The more places we re-plant with native plants, the more we fill the gaps between distant patches of conserved habitat. These plants feed and house the diversity of wild pollinators through the year when the crops aren't blooming. Salvaging native species from development sites will make native plants more widely available for public and private landscaping, as well as for large scale reclamation projects that often have trouble sourcing enough native seeds. 


Setting aside land is still the best way to conserve local biodiversity, but by collecting, relocating, and archiving seeds in developing areas, we could go a long way to enhancing the conservation practices in our region. In 2010, while I was completing my Master's thesis, I was privileged to finally visit the Millennium Seed Bank in England and spend two months as an intern studying techniques for collecting and storing seeds in long-term archives. I am now attempting to use this knowledge to start a conservation-based community cooperative that will help bring conservation to the construction zone. 


This summer will be the second collecting season of the pilot project for this community initiative called SeedsCo Community Conservation. I have partnered with a large community development project in Kelowna called "The Ponds" which is allowing collection of native plant species from their 300 acre site. They have agreed to incorporate a native garden in their next show home, and will promote the use of native plants to the local builders. Another of our partners is a landscape reclamation specialist who operates a native plant nursery in Winfield, and is growing up some of the collections for sale. The seeds collected will be divided up, and those that are not used to landscape at The Ponds will be archived for conservation, or sold to fund operations of the project. 


We have recently connected with a host of other people interested in joining this initiative at Kelowna's Seedy Saturday in March. We are hoping to network with as many people as possible to enhance conservation throughout the valley, and eventually throughout British Columbia. If you are interested in learning more, please contact me via email, or watch our progress over our Facebook page(2).





Tanis Gieselman, M.Sc.

Message from the Okanagan Similkameen Stewardship Society

by Alyson Skinner, Executive Director, OSSS


The Okanagan Similkameen Stewardship Society (OSSS) welcomes the Osoyoos Desert Society as their newest Wildlife Habitat Steward. A Wildlife Habitat Steward is an individual or group who carefully manages natural areas on their properties such as grasslands and shrub-steppes, wetlands, streamside/riparian areas and open forests. The Desert Society stewards 67 acres of antelope-brush habitat at its nature interpretive facility - the Osoyoos Desert Centre - located 3 km north of Osoyoos. OSSS is thrilled to be partners in stewardship with an organization so dedicated to the conservation and restoration of the globally imperilled antelope-brush plant community.


For more information about the Okanagan Similkameen Stewardship Society,
visit or phone
Executive Director, Alyson Skinner, at 250-809-1980.
Job Opening
Interpretive Tour Guides
The Osoyoos Desert Society is seeking interpretive guides to lead tours at the Osoyoos Desert Centre and provide habitat and wildlife information to visitors. We are seeking candidates with a friendly, outgoing personality and an interest in ecology and the environment. Previous knowledge and experience not required - training provided. Full-time and part-time positions available starting in May. Guides must be able to be outside all day and work shifts, weekends and holidays. A great summer job for teachers and college students. 
Please send cover letter and resume to: Osoyoos Desert Society, PO Box 123, Osoyoos BC V0H 1V0 or email Deadline: April 11, 2014.

April 12-Movie & Annual General Meeting

Join us for the award-winning documentary 'Chasing Ice.' Follow National Geographic photographer James Balog across the Arctic as he deploys time-lapse cameras to capture a multi-year record of the world's melting glaciers and the impact of climate change. The Desert Society's annual general meeting will be held following the film. Everyone welcome!

2:30 pm at Watermark Beach Resort

Film admission by donation


April 26-Opening Day at the Desert Centre

Stop by the Osoyoos Desert Centre for a day of free admission and special activities. Naturalist hike at 9:30 am. Guided tours at 10 am and noon. Special presentation on building homes for wildlife (bird, bee and bat house resources) at 1:30 pm.

9:30 am-2:30 pm at the Desert Centre
Free admission  

May & June

May 10-11-Birdathon

Take part in a weekend bird count at the Osoyoos Desert Centre starting on Migratory Bird Day. Record bird species you see during your visit and share the results with staff.

10 am-2 pm

Desert Centre admission fees apply


May 18-Call of the Wild Tour

Learn about the different ways animals communicate during an evening tour at the Osoyoos Desert Centre. An experienced guide will share fascinating facts about local wildlife, including how some animals 'talk' to each other without making a sound. Have fun identifying some of the different animal calls heard in our unique desert habitat.

7:00-8:30 pm at the Desert Centre

$15/person ~ Book through Meadowlark

Proceeds support the Meadowlark Festival and the Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Alliance 

Stay tuned for June events.  

Check our website for updates on programs and special events -

July 5, 15, 25 - Night Owl Tour

Experience the magic of the desert at night. Take a guided tour along the Desert Centre's 1.5 km boardwalk and get the inside scoop on our desert's "wild" night life. Learn fascinating facts about the many nocturnal animals that call this habitat home and what you can do to help protect them.

7:30-9:00 pm at the Desert Centre

$10/person  ~  Advance registration required


August 2, 12 - Night Owl Tour

Tour details listed above

August 9-Romancing the Desert

Enjoy an evening of fine wine and gourmet food and experience the beauty of the desert under the light of a full moon. Proceeds support the Osoyoos Desert Society's habitat restoration and education efforts.

6:00 pm at the Osoyoos Desert Centre



Volunteer Open House

April 26th - 4 pm at the Desert Centre

Enjoy some Happy Hour beverages and snacks and have fun re-connecting with other Society volunteers. If you know someone who might be interested in volunteering, please invite them. Friends and spouses welcome!


RSVP to or 250-495-2470.

We hope to see you there!

Spring Cleaning Day
April 15 - 9:00 am to noon at the Desert Centre 

Join us for a morning work party to get the Desert Centre ready for Opening Day. Lend a hand tackling some cleaning and maintenance projects - a variety of indoor and outdoor jobs to choose from. Refreshments provided.


For more information contact or call 250-495-2470

Restoration Work Parties

Tuesdays, 10 am-noon

April 29, May 6, May 20, May 27 and June 3

Join us for some native landscaping and habitat restoration projects at the Desert Centre.
~ Please bring your work gloves and a shovel.

~ Refreshments provided. 

~ Everyone welcome!


For more information contact or call 250-495-2470

Volunteer Opportunities
Have fun being part of a great volunteer team while supporting a worthy cause. Volunteer

opportunities with the Desert Society include helping out with:

~ Front desk reception at the Desert Centre

~ Site maintenance projects

~ Habitat restoration and native landscaping

~ Fundraising efforts like Romancing the Desert

  Click here for more information

Volunteer Tribute


Cy Bailey   

This past year the Society lost a long-time volunteer and supporter, Cy Bailey. Cy was a great friend to the Society, helping out at events and generously supporting our programs and efforts over the years. His friendship, visits, cheerful smile and jokes will be greatly missed. 


What Desert Is This?

by Jamie Leathem, Restoration Coordinator

Osoyoos Desert Society


The southern tip of the Okanagan Valley features a unique desert environment, and visitors to the Osoyoos Desert Centre often ask "What desert is this?" To answer the question, it can be helpful to first take a look at what deserts we are not a part of.


A common misconception is that our dry, shrub grassland is part of the Sonoran Desert. But in fact we are far from it - both geographically and in terms of climate and resident species. The misunderstanding likely arose because the arid lands of the South Okanagan were once classified as part of the "Upper Sonoran Life Zone," by biogeographer C. Hart Merriam. Merriam created a system of "life zones" to classify the broad vegetation zones in North America. Extrapolating from his studies in and around the actual Sonoran Desert, he included any area with antelope-brush in the "Upper Sonoran" zone because these shrubs grow in high elevation areas near the Sonoran Desert (though not in it). Though his work was tremendously useful and became foundational to our modern-day concept of biomes, it did not apply particularly well to many parts of the continent and "Upper Sonoran" is no longer a useful classification, especially in our area.


The South Okanagan is not, nor ever was, part of the Sonoran Desert. The map below illustrates just how far from us the Sonoran desert is (in red). At a much lower latitude than us, the Sonoran Desert has a climate and vegetation unlike anything we have here. Located in the American Southwest, it is one of three hot deserts in North America, along with the Mojave and Chihuahuan Deserts. Though climate varies dramatically across its considerable area (over 260,000 sq. km) because of factors like elevation and proximity to the Pacific Coast, the Sonoran Desert remains considerably warmer than the South Okanagan. There is a reason snowbirds head to Arizona for the winter! Summer temperatures in this subtropical area are often between 40 ̊ C and 48 ̊ C, while in winter, valley bottoms only rarely experience frost. Compare this to our often snowy winters in the South Okanagan and average summer temperatures of 28-32 ̊ C. Precipitation regimes are also very different. The driest parts of the Sonoran get only 3 inches of rain per year (75 mm) in two seasons: once in late winter and again as short but monsoon-like deluges in summer. In contrast, the driest parts of the South Okanagan valley receive 10-12 inches of precipitation annually (250-300 mm), mostly in the colder months as rain or snow.

If there is any lingering doubt about our association with the Sonoran, one look at the plant life should put that doubt to rest. The Sonoran Desert landscape is dominated by leguminous trees (e.g. acacias and other trees in the Pea family) and large columnar cacti, like the saguaro. There are over 300 species of cactus in the Sonoran Desert region, some of which can grow to over 20 m tall. Compare this to our local landscape dominated by low shrubs, grasses and one cactus species - the tiny brittle prickly-pear (Opuntia fragilis) - with a dazzling maximum height of 20 cm! The biggest and most well-known cactus in the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro (Carnegiea gigantean) and while its likeness may be painted on a few signs around Osoyoos, that's the closest you'll come to finding one here.


Other Sonoran cacti include barrel cacti (Ferocactus and Echinocactus spp.), hedgehog cacti (Echinocereus spp.) pincushion cacti (Mammillaria spp.) and cholla cacti (Opuntia spp). The Sonoran has prickly pear cacti as well - around 18 species - though not the species we have here. Most common is the Engelmann prickly-pear (Opuntia engelmannii) which grows up to 1.5 m tall (and is probably easier to avoid stepping on than our species!). Other common succulents include agave (Agave spp.), yucca (Yucca spp.) and sotol (Dasylirion spp.). The Sonoran landscape also supports several low shrubs like creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and legume trees like palo verde (Parkinsonia spp.), catclaw (Acacia spp.) and mesquite (Prosopis spp.). These resourceful trees survive by developing very deep root systems which are always in contact with the water table deep below the sandy soil.


Some visitors ask if our area is considered part of the Great Basin Desert (in gold on map). Though it is more similar to our region than the Sonoran, the Great Basin Desert does not extend into British Columbia. In the rain shadow of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Ranges, the Great Basin Desert covers parts of eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, east central California and most of Nevada. It is a cold desert, meaning freezing temperatures are common and most of the precipitation falls in winter months as rain or snow. Sound familiar? However, average high temperatures in summer are 28-32 ̊ C, a few degrees warmer than ours of 25-29 ̊ C, and precipitation at low elevations is also slightly less than ours. These slight climatic differences, combined with our relative proximity, make it possible for us to have several species in common with the Great Basin Desert. After the glaciers that carved out the Okanagan Valley retreated and climate subsequently warmed, several plant and animal species migrated north from the Great Basin Desert into British Columbia as more areas became hospitable to them. One such species is big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). This familiar shrub is even more dense in the Great Basin Desert than it is here. Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa recently changed from Chrysothamnus nauseosus) and antelope-brush (Purshia tridentata) also have origins in the Great Basin Desert, though the latter is actually less common than here and known as bitterbrush (emphasizing the importance of including latin/scientific names when comparing flora across regions!). Other shared species include arrow-leaf balsamroot (Balsamifera sagittata), Great Basin wild rye (Leymus cinereus) and golden-aster (Heterotheca villosa). We also, unfortunately, share invasive plants like knapweed (Centaurea spp.) and cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum).


Despite these shared species, the dominant vegetation of the Great Basin Desert is quite different from the South Okanagan's. Shrubs like blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima), shadscale saltbush (Atriplex confertifolia), greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus), Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis) and the occasional yucca dominate the landscape. Only one cactus occurs in the Great Basin Desert, the Plains prickly-pear (Opuntia polyacantha). It is a close relative of the brittle prickly-pear and hybrids of the two species (Opuntia x columbiana) occur in Washington and British Columbia.


So, when all is said and done - what is our desert environment called? In terms of ecoregions, it is the northernmost extension of the plant community of the semi-arid steppe plateaus that extend into the western United States. A bit long-winded? At the Desert Centre we typically refer to it as a shrub-steppe semi-desert, or as the antelope-brush ecosystem. No matter what you call it, however, this habitat is very special and one of the rarest and most endangered ecosystems in Canada. It supports numerous species that occur nowhere else on Earth, as well as many species at the northern edge of their range - populations which hold genetic diversity vital to adapting to a changing climate. As stewards of this valuable landscape we all play an important role in its protection and future survival. 

 Saturday, August 9, 2014
6:00 pm at the Osoyoos Desert Centre 

Experience the beauty of the desert under the light of a full moon.
Proceeds support the conservation efforts of the Osoyoos Desert Society.

~ Gourmet cuisine
Appetizers along the boardwalk
Entrees in the Main Plaza

~ Okanagan wines
Wine tasting stations

~ Guided boardwalk tours
Specially themed guided tour

~ Silent Auction
Great selection of items

~ Entertainment
Music under the moonlight!

Tickets $65 per person ~ advance booking required
Call 250-495-2470 ~ 1-877-899-0897 or email
Your support makes difference. Memberships and donations help fund the Desert Society's
habitat conservation, restoration and education efforts.

Membership is $25/year.

Members receive a bi-annual newsletter, and FREE admission to the Desert Centre.


Payment may be made through the secure, encrypted PayPal link, or you can click here  to download a membership brochure and mail-in registration form.


Thank you!

For more information visit our website or follow us on social media. 
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 The Osoyoos Desert Society
Desert Centre Hours
April 26-May 15 ~ 10:00am-2:00pm 
May 16-Sept 15 ~ 9:30am-4:30pm 
Sept 16-early Oct ~ 10:00am-2:00pm