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Conservation group moves to save endangered grasslands near Osoyoos, B.C.

Part of the Sage and Sparrow Conservation Area near Osoyoos, B.C., is shown in a handout photo. A non-profit conservation group has bought a huge tract of private land in southern British Columbia to preserve the province's disappearing grasslands.

Nature Conservancy of Canada/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A huge tract of endangered grasslands in southern British Columbia will be preserved, after it was bought from private landowners by a non-profit conservation group.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada said the new Sage and Sparrow Conservation Area near Osoyoos, B.C., is home to more than 30 species at risk – including sage thrashers, an extremely threatened bird species with only a handful of breeding pairs remaining in Canada.

Biologists were also surprised to find canyon bats, a tiny species that has never before been recorded in this country.

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"It weighs as much as a Hershey's Kiss," Barb Pryce, area director for the group, said Thursday as the group announced the new conservation area. "When people see it, I think they think it's a moth."

The area is at the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert that begins in Mexico, through California and Arizona and into southern B.C. Unlike its rainforest relatives to the west, the area receives on average less than 30 centimetres of rain annually, and average summer temperatures average around 38 C.

It is home to burrowing owls, tiger salamanders and the rare half-moon hairstreak butterfly. There are also five species of snake, including rattlesnakes and the rubber boa.

The area also incorporates a designated "important bird area" at Kilpoola Lake.

"Grasslands in British Columbia are under threat," Ms. Pryce said.

Grasslands are one of the four most endangered ecosystems in the country. They represent just 1 per cent of the land base in the province but provide habitat for nearly a third of species at risk.

"People love [grasslands], too. They're easy to develop and that's where people want to put their houses," Ms. Pryce said.

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The 743 hectares of land recently purchased from private landowners links two areas previously bought by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and is flanked by provincial conservation areas on either side. Ms. Pryce said there was interest by developers in the land, but the owners sold to the conservancy group.

The total price tag for the project is $4.4-million, which came from the federal government's natural areas conservation program, several non-government foundations and individual donors.

The Sage and Sparrow Conservation Area will be open to the public for hiking, but it will be closed to motorized vehicles and to future development.

"Larger habitats are much better for the species that rely on them than if you have little chunks all over the place," said Ms. Pryce, who lives in nearby Penticton. "We've lost a lot of grasslands in B.C., and riparian areas, especially in this part of the province to development or agricultural conversion. Those sorts of activities won't happen on these properties."

Colin Carrie, parliamentary secretary to the environment minister, called the area "one of the foremost endangered ecosystems in Canada."

And John Lounds, president of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, said the entire area now stretches over 1,200 hectares that form a world-class refuge.

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In the 50-plus years since it was formed from the Ontario Federation of Naturalists to stop a single wetland development, Mr. Lounds said the group has protected more than a million hectares of once-private land across the country.

Ms. Pryce said the group's efforts to preserve grassland in B.C. are not finished. The conservancy has until May to raise $3.4-million to buy the Napier Lake ranch in the Nicola Valley, near Kamloops.

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