Not until the late 1980s did the community of Salmon Arm begin to realize the importance of the natural values of its waterfront. Most of the bay is a shallow estuary of the Salmon River. In this area the water-tolerant grasses feed invertebrates which nourish large numbers of yearling salmon. Other slower fish are an important food supply for the threatened Western Grebe and the even rarer Clark’s Grebe. In spring large numbers of waterfowl arrive to gain energy for their journey north while some stay to breed here. Later, on the return journey in the fall, thousands of shorebirds arrive on the mud flats to store energy for their journey south.

In 1988 a committee was formed to promote the purchase by Nature Trust BC of the wetland around the Salmon Arm bay. This committee became the Salmon Arm Bay Nature Enhancement Society (SABNES) headed by six appointed and six elected board members. The fact that the endangered Western and Clark’s grebes still nested here as a colony, while other locations saw declining use, clinched the decision by Nature Trust to purchase. The area was leased to the Ministry of Environment, for whom SABNES was to act as managing authority of the resulting wildlife sanctuary.

The Board’s first task was to ensure that four kilometres of shoreline were preserved forever. Since then the area has been enlarged by the creation of a four-hectare island built with material dredged from the marina project. The society arranged for the island to be planted and sculpted, creating mounds and lagoons. In another important project, for the protection of the sensitive nesting areas for grebes and other waterfowl, volunteers installed exclusion buoys 500 metres out from high water, with signs asking boaters to stay clear of the sensitive breeding area. Elsewhere, with the help of Ducks Unlimited, two lagoons were created where, some years later, a family of beaver moved in. Ducks Unlimited and Nature Bay Society have also worked with the First Nations to restore habitat on the nearby Reserve. A major project saw a symposium bring together all the stake holders with interest in land around the bay, including developers, politicians and environmentalists, to discuss ways to preserve the natural values so close to the centre of a city.

The second mandate was to regulate human access to the newly created sanctuary. Consequently, board walks were built, trails created, and a bird tower erected overlooking the new island, where a gull colony and osprey poles were located. Later, two bird blinds were built overlooking the richer birding spots. Signage was installed, and dog owners requested not to bring dogs into the wildlife sanctuary. In addition, the foot and cycle trail was extended to the Raven subdivision, four kilometres from the Salmon Arm wharf.

Corresponding to the third mandate, namely education, a Nature House was set up in Marine Park. By 2004, with regular additions to the taxidermy collection, the centre became a real attraction worthy of repeated visits. The staff could show a video of dancing grebes, a DVD of birds of the bay, a collection of stuffed and carved birds, a book collection and a computer programme which visitors could use to identify birds and their songs. Maps and bird lists, as well as booklets on the dancing grebes, were made available. As a service to the schools, class groups were welcomed with talks available in English and French. As a result of this work, the Board were elated to receive the Chamber of Commerce “Best Tourist attraction in the Shuswap Award.”

By counting birds each week, the Shuswap Naturalist Club was able to confirm a total of 230 bird species observed around the Salmon Arm Bay, an impressive total when compared with the 480 reported for the whole of British Columbia. Particularly rewarding is the fact that the annual average number of young grebes has more than doubled since SABNES was formed.

A decision was made to refurbish the existing Interpretive Centre building with new support joists, new flooring, a new deck, and a new metal roof. Since this work meant that a new building was no longer envisaged at that time, the Board decided to take the remaining building fund amount and entrust the Shuswap Community Foundation with finding more rewarding investments, the interest to be available to SABNES on an annual basis.

The needs of the bay and its plant and animal life keep a small group of very dedicated volunteers busy clearing the trails, updating signage, maintaining the exclusion buoys, hiring Interpretive Centre staff, controlling invasive weeds and dealing with a host of other unpredictable chores. Shuswap Community Foundation will accept donations on behalf of SABNES to add to the fund.