Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
Dry weathered hills and low lying vegetation make up British Columbia's desert region.

Canada’s just deserts

Lands characterized by features such as sand and dry riverbeds may be called deserts, but they are far from deserted. Life teems there, even if some of it is hidden. Some people may be surprised to know that Canada has a desert ecozone. Parts of the North are sometimes referred to as Arctic deserts, but Canada’s other desert is the real deal —complete with sand, dry air and desert-adapted species.

What makes up the desert ecozone

The desert ecozone in this virtual exhibit encompasses a very small section of the country’s most western province, British Columbia. Not surprisingly, it is found in the southern region of that province and is surrounded by the northwestern forest ecozone.

Similar stretches of desert are found in the United States and Mexico. One pocket comparable in size to the Canadian desert ecozone appears mainly in Washington with the edges of it spreading over to Oregon and Idaho. A larger swath runs just west of the Rockies through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, southern California, New Mexico and Texas and splits further south into Baja California, around the Gulf of California and through central Mexico.

The Canadian desert for this exhibit runs from the U.S. border around Osoyoos, British Columbia, north to Williams Lake, and is buffeted on either side by the Coast and the Rocky mountains. Arid conditions along the Fraser Canyon towards Williams Lake and in the Thompson River area near Kamloops define the area as a desert with temperatures ranging from up to 40˚C in the summer down to –5˚C in the winter. Precipitation is rare, with an average of just 300 millimetres falling annually.

Why conservation matters for the organisms that call the desert home

An amazing variety of highly adaptive plants and animals reside in Canada’s fragile desert ecozone. Vegetation that thrives on such hot and dry conditions includes a variety of cacti as well as ponderosa pine, sage grass and greasewood.

A large number of the animals found inhabiting this ecozone are threatened or vulnerable species such as the cougar, the grey wolf, the grizzly bear and certain Pacific salmon varieties. Other inhabitants include the “less popular” species in our exhibit, such as the mountain pine beetle and the coyote. Resident birds include the rehabilitated symbol of America - the bald eagle – as well as the peregrine falcon and common loon. They use the desert habitat in their life cycles, as do monarch butterflies and honeybees — the latter usually as part of a farm.

With all these species using the desert ecozone as primary or seasonal habitat, it becomes obvious why conservation matters. Such a northern country having a desert is unique enough, however natural beauty and rareness aside, it is home to a wide variety of animals. And it is being altered at a rapid rate. Nearby cities such as Kamloops and Kelowna are sprawling, and a growing number of golf courses are competing for precious water supplies. When species such as the cougar and the grey wolf have nowhere to go but your front lawn, it may be time to re-evaluate where that lawn is located.