Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 12: Vancouver Island 1931

“What the heck are those brown things that I see up in the mountains?”

– A young man describing rare marmots

After catching the Maquinna back to Port Alberni, Cowan and Racey retraced Annie Alexander and Louise Kellogg’s 1910 expedition to find the population of Vancouver Island Marmot that hadn’t been seen for years. Cowan recounts that they were sitting in a café, when they met a young man who asked them, “What the heck are those brown things that I see up in the mountains?” Cowan said, “We perked our ears up and asked if he could show us.” Picking up their young guide, Ed Torkko, they headed out on a midsummer’s day for what they had been told was “an easy day’s round trip” to find the elusive animals.

They set off with a “light outfit,” which in those days was a gun, a snack and a pack frame to carry out the specimens. The Nanaimo River–Green Mountain country through which the trapper’s trail passed was not easy to follow with constant blowdowns. The weather in these mountains moves in quickly, and that day was no exception. Taking shelter in the cabin, they left at 5 the next morning to Green Mountain–Haley Lake subalpine meadows at 4,000 feet. Wet and tired, Racey wasn’t fit to return to the cabin so Cowan’s June 22 journal entry captures the long, damp, cold night they spent on the mountain and their successful sightings of the rare marmots (whistlers) the next morning. 

Vancouver Island marmot

Cowan was fond of telling the Green Mountain story as a prelude to stories on marmots and his father-in-law. (Racey had a subspecies of Hoary Marmot named after him by in 1932: M. caligata raceyi Anderson.) The Green Mountain trip demonstrated his prowess as a future son-in-law and he was also intellectually engaged in the mystery of the marmots and their upland occupation of a changing glaciated landscape.  

My take on the history of the marmots is that there was a small colony of marmots surviving on the Brooks Peninsula [on the west side of Vancouver Island], and when the ice started to retreat, they moved right up to the edge of it and they followed it and the trees came in behind them. The poor things found themselves on top of some rather inhospitable stuff where they made a living up to this point in time. I suggested that back in the ’30s and I was told that I was out to lunch.

Hoary marmot (1930) : Banff

Just months before Cowan died, David Nagorsen published an article with Andrea Cardini on the evolutionary divergence of the Vancouver Island Marmot testing the DNA of the same specimens collected that day in 1931. Cardini and Nagorsen confirmed Cowan’s evolutionary bottleneck theory and predicted, like Cowan, that the species would be very susceptible to climate change. 

Cowan reported additional sightings of the Haley Lake population in 1938. After that, not much is heard about the marmots until a tipoff in 1972 from the Nanaimo and District Fish and Game Club, who “rediscovered” (again) the Green Mountain–Haley Lake colony. They raised the alarm when timber company plans showed logging activities coming right up to the colony. Cowan immediately contacted his former student Glen Smith, chief of wildlife management for the BC Fish and Game Branch, and proposed the idea of a reserve. Smith agreed, in a confidential letter, recommending a legal designation of an ecological reserve on the basis that “the major purpose of timber companies is to make money, not preserve common property resources, especially when they are so rare.” True to his word, Cowan immediately wrote to the presidents of the two companies to halt the logging. MacMillan’s assistant chief forester responded and halted any further logging in the area, later donating the land. There is no record of Crown Zellerbach’s response.

Vancouver Island Marmot habitat (Green Mountain, B.C.)

The next spring when the marmots came out of their hibernation, Cowan headed into the field to do a pre-survey and found graduate students to take on a two-year behavioural study and an inventory, Doug Herd and Bill Merilees. Cowan was ever present on various committees, including the federal–provincial COSEWIC, which started reviewing the status of the marmot in 1978. By 1980 Cowan’s student Bristol Foster, director of ecological reserves, had put forward a proposal for a Haley Lake Ecological Reserve, and the marmot’s status as Canada’s most endangered mammal had become official. 

Various hypotheses for their decline were put forward from climate change to clearcuts as sinks and the opening up of these areas to roads for hunters/predators. Cowan was firmly convinced of the combination of all causes, or “cumulative impacts.” In his time he called them “incremental impact.” In a 1980 interview with the Ministry of Forests magazine _ForesTalk_, he was asked about the greatest threats to conservation. “[E]ach little change has its own impact,” he replied. “The total consequence is destruction of the environment, although each separate act appeared insignificant.” The necessity for assessing cumulative impacts was one of Cowan’s key messages throughout his career. His long-term observations in the field and his ability to synthesize multiple disciplines made cumulative impacts an obvious framework, but the concept faltered politically nearly every time he raised it. 

It wasn’t until 1987 that Haley Lake Ecological Reserve was finally designated. The ’90s were disastrous for the marmots and by 1997 the population had shrunk so small that 55 animals, mostly from the reserve, were captured and brought into a captive breeding program. In 2004 the first captive-born pair released at Haley Lake bred in the wild. Haley Lake once again had marmots. 

An intriguing footnote to the marmot story came from Andrew MacDonald, the biologist who worked with Cowan latterly on establishing the professorship in his name at the University of Victoria. Cowan had confided to MacDonald during a lunch meeting one day that he knew what Vancouver Island Marmots tasted like – presumably as consumed on that hungry morning of the 1931 trip.

Vancouver Island marmot release (Green Mountain, B.C.)
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