Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 20: Mount Revelstoke 1937

“At last I believe I have found a colony of these elusive mice.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

The field season planned for 1937 was Mount Revelstoke via Monashee Pass. Cowan invited Joyce and his father-in-law, Kenneth Racey, as honorary assistant biologists. They plotted their route to do inventories in some new parks and sort out a few of the more ticklish subspecies of small mammals. They camped at the top of Monashee Pass to sort out the races of Pika, or Rock Rabbit. Cowan typically overcame many odds to study pikas because of their interesting evolutionary history. They featured heavily in his popular writing, television shows and scientific work, as their small, teddy bear appearance belied their epic struggles.

The Monashee Mountains, which rise to 8000’ on either side of the pass, served as nunataks and refugia where certain species persisted despite the thick layers of ice passing around them. When Cowan wrote up his analysis of the pika subspecies in 1954, he had pieced together an intriguing evolutionary hypothesis that tracked the marooning of this small, sedentary rodent through the glacial cycles between these widely dispersed mountain ranges. His theory worked on the assumption that pika camouflage was critical to survival and that the little rodent was less vulnerable to predation when its fur colour matched the colour of the rock it sat on. The Racey–Cowans would eventually describe three of the nine subspecies of Rocky Mountain Pika that were proposed at that time.

American pika

The type specimens of the pika were at Mount Monashee, so the threesome made a careful study of their diet, their habitat and breeding behaviour. The latter they observed as sedentary, a departure from the species’ industrious pursuit of making hay while the sun shone. In 2010, assumptions about the pikas unadventurous sex life were substantially revised. Using genetic markers, call dialects and traditional indicators of skull measurements, pika researchers David Hafner and Andrew Smith discovered that there was actually less isolation and more intermingling than Cowan and Racey had first suspected. They reduced the number of subspecies in North America to five, with only two in BC, with the observation that pikas could travel greater distances than the animals let on!

The Cowan/Racey team’s next destination was Mount Revelstoke with its “populous mammal community,” rising out of the junction of the Columbia and Illecillewaet rivers. Cowan said of the study: “All have faced the common problem of alplands – summer abundance followed by freezing famine of winter. The ways in which the common problem has been mastered make an interesting story.” 

Cowan describes many of the mammalian adaptations from the Columbian Groundsquirrels browsing lazily in the meadows to their solitary cousin the Mantled Groundsquirrel, “the handsomest of the province’s mammals,” stocking up on seeds. Then, on July 5, Cowan wrote – with unprecedented excitement in his journal – about a puzzle that had eluded him for years: The breeding grounds of the large Richardson Vole (mouse or Water Rat).[journal entry] The “water rat” was the common name given this vole by British expats used to their own similar European Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius), a creature immortalized as Ratty by Kenneth Grahame in his classic children’s book The Wind in the Willows. Pre-forested, recently glaciated landscapes seemed to be the habitat of preference for these animals, and the remnant populations may have shrunk first with the advancement of forests, then with climate change and the shrinking of glaciers. Today there is evidence that during population peaks, this vole disperses into forest habitats at lower elevations. Like the possum and marmot, the vole provided yet another clue for Cowan on adaptability to climate change.

Ian McTaggart Cowan and Joyce McTaggart Cowan (1937)

On July 7, 1937, the weather held and they headed out over rough terrain towards the Eva Lake ranger’s cabin to document the area. Scrambling over huge boulders and up rock outcrops, the threesome ranged up to 8,000 feet seeing evidence of Wolverine and Mountain. En route, they also ran smack into a Black Bear. Cowan wrote, “The unexpected suddenness of the old lady’s assault startled me out of a week’s growth.” They witnessed a Coyote catching a marmot, then flushed a Porcupine on arrival at the cabin which escaped into their outhouse, trying to make a bid for freedom by chewing its way out. It failed and is now immortalized in the Beaty Biodiversity museum.

The Cowans’ return to Victoria in August 1937 coincided with a chance encounter with a much larger mammal, a Minke Whale that had tangled in the salmon traps at Sooke. At the time, minkes were not well known. Ian and Joyce spent the weekend measuring, dissecting, flensing and taking the meat off. As Cowan recalled, there were only two ways to get the grease off a whale’s skeleton: bury it in sand for three years or boil it in gasoline; they opted unwisely for the gasoline. Undoubtedly that early experience of dissecting the whale with Joyce was to have a lasting impact on all his later work on whale conservation, culminating as chairman of the Canadian Committee on Whales and Whaling at a heady time for whale conservation – 1978. Cowan was advising Ottawa on the scientific rationale behind a moratorium on whaling, as Canada was still a member of the International Whaling Commission. Interestingly, it was the minke that became the main target of the countries not in support of the moratorium. The pro-whaling countries argued in favour of killing them for “scientific purposes.” 

Cowan’s correspondence from those years contain a wealth of insight into the politicization of the issue and the role of the scientific committees and NGOs like Greenpeace, which he believed had the more credible arguments and data. He laboured over decisions in the absence of good data but, in his capacity as chair of the Committee to Canada, came out with a scientific recommendation in 1980 for Canada that “all whaling should cease” on the basis of the precautionary principle. Significantly, that recommendation preceded by two years the first adoption of the precautionary principle in an international treaty – the World Charter for Nature – adopted by the UN in 1982. Cowan’s report to the committee ended with: “I would not even exempt the Antarctic stocks of minke whales, even though they are apparently increasing.”

Minke whale skull
Ian McTaggart Cowan and Kenneth Racey field notes (1936-1937) : Okanagan, Ootsa Lake, Monashee Pass, Mt. Revelstoke, Texas Creek
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