Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 21: Peace River 1938

“With pathetic frequency our groping hands have left irreparable scars on the beauty we sought to serve.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

Cowan had been reading early travel accounts for the region that the museum had little information on —the northeast of the province, in Peace River country. He wanted to check out reports of the fabled spring bird migration through this area, so the plans were to do two months of fieldwork on birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and plants around the Peace region for May and June. The biological inventory of what he called “the climax aspen woodlands” would become the first of the museum’s Occasional Papers. This series started by Cowan would run for another 50 years, with 26 papers appearing, before technical publications were eventually abandoned by the museum.

Cowan did not know at the time that there would be little zoological collecting done thereafter. Like Kootenay and Ootsa before, these watersheds were to be the focus of massive energy and resource projects, from hydroelectric dams to natural gas extraction, with plans starting in the late 50s. Construction for the W.A.C. Bennett dam – a result of Premier Bennett’s river policy spat with Ottawa – began in 1961. No environmental impact assessment was ever done for the project. According to provincial mammologist, David Nagorsen, prior to 2005, ”Cowan’s 1939 monograph was still the best reference on the vertebrates of the Peace River.” With the proposed Site C dam, Cowan’s report today is an historic benchmark and still remains a vivid record of a vital part of BC’s biodiversity.

Drummond's meadow mouse

Cowan needed a field assistant and Pat Martin was a natural choice. Like Cowan, he was born in the UK and raised in Canada, although on the east coast. They had both been mentored by gentle men of the ‘B’ but at opposite ends of the country. Martin’s early interest in birds had been cultivated by Robie Tufts, the migratory bird officer for the east coast, Munro’s colleague, friend and ornithological counterpart in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Martin was BC’s first seabird specialist, and with his easygoing nature and enthusiasm for evolutionary taxonomy, he was a natural fit for assistant to Cowan. 

The two men left Victoria on April 28 in the museum van, driving straight for three days staying just ahead of an incoming storm. Their first stop was Swan Lake on the Alberta–BC boundary just south of Dawson Creek. Cowan was well pleased with their choice of a base camp to start their research and wrote an ecstatic letter back to Kermode that night. “We have a perfect campsite on Swan Lake – yes it had 2 swans on it when we arrived.” His journal notation is “Swan (Trumpeters?)”, although he later amends it with Whistling (now Tundra) Swan. Cowan’s excitement and confusion were understandable – both species of swans were rarities. Records of observations and sightings were very spotty. His father-in-law’s field notes on Whistlers coming through Ladner in the 1920s recorded only four sightings of individuals or small flocks between 1924 and ’34. It is unlikely Cowan had seen a Trumpeter Swan; they were still hovering on extinction in 1938. They also spotted the little-known godwit, characterized by its long, upturned bill and “incredible non-stop, transcontinental migratory movements” between South America and remote Arctic breeding ranges with no break except for a few staging grounds, Swan Lake being one of them. 

Trumpeter swans 01

The diversity of the migrants was spectacular for Cowan. Journal entries from May 14th onward tally a large number of species many of them new. Cowan wrote to his boss: “Our collecting continues apace, little short of phenomenal – to date we have obtained about 17 new records for the province; 2 or 4 amphibians, 3 mammals, and 12 birds as well we have taken things known from but one or two previous records.” Their days began at 5 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m. In daylight they were observing and collecting birds and plants; each evening was spent setting traps, pressing plants, frog and toad hunting, bat observing and preparing between 10 and 20 specimens. Cowan wrote to his boss: “Our collecting continues apace, little short of phenomenal – to date we have obtained about 17 new records for the province; 2 or 4 amphibians, 3 mammals, and 12 birds as well we have taken things known from but one or two previous records.”

With winds abating, the migration continued. One day a flock of over 100 Red-winged Blackbirds arrived, all singing at once. Then the first bittern of the year “cruised in while I was setting traps and landed within 60 feet of me.” Blue-winged Teal are “becoming abundant and evidently going to nest here.” New flycatchers, vireos and warblers were arriving every day, each with their distinctive songs. “Sora Rails are abundant and noisy now.” On May 19 “The toads came out of hibernation yesterday – the first really warm day and night we have had.” On May 23 they saw their first bat and a Semipalmated Sandpiper (a “peeps”). On May 24 the Redstarts had arrived, the Black Terns had returned in numbers to nest, and the bitterns had started their “pumping” display call. The Tree Swallows and the various sapsuckers were starting to lay eggs. On May 25 a dowitcher performed a display flight, the flying squirrels had emerged and the first Western Tanagers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were singing.  

Speakers at the James Smithson Bicentennial Celebration (1965)

They worked the country north to Dawson Creek and southeast to Peavine Lake. In the midst of all this, Cowan also went to the Tupper Creek School and gave a lecture on “Local Birds,” at which time he discovered a small colony of Northern Lemming Mouse [Northern Bog Lemming] on the school grounds. Drummond’s Meadow Mouse [Vole] he found to be the most abundant small mammal. The concept of a keystone species was also starting to emerge at this time and Cowan had his own language to describe it. He observed the sapsucker–bluebird relationship around nesting cavities to illustrate what are called “special requirements” — factors other than food that limit population. It also became an example he used to critique forest policy that failed to recognize critical habitat features provided by different aged stands of trees.

Unbeknownst to Cowan and Martin at the time, they had been exploring very near what would one day be revealed as one of the most important archaeological sites in Canada – Charlie Lake cave, containing the earliest evidence of bison hunting 12,000 years ago. Today Charlie Lake and Swan Lake are provincial parks surrounded by a fragmented landscape of industrial energy development. Swan and Charlie lakes fall into the worst-impacted areas. In addition, the proposed Site C dam, which would flood 83 kilometres of the Peace River valley, comes within a kilometre or so of Charlie Lake. The impacts to the surrounding countryside are predictable, since the impacts of the W.A.C. Bennett dam have now been well documented. The surviving members of Fort Ware and Ingenika Point (now known as the Tsay Keh Dene people of the Kwadacha First Nation) and the wildlife they depended on endured irreparable damage from the flooding.

In 1966 when the Bennett Dam was three years into the building, Cowan made an address at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, as one of the featured great thinkers of the 20th century alongside Claude Lévi-Strauss, Lewis Mumford, Sir Kenneth Clark, Arthur Koestler and S. Dillon Ripley. 

Red-winged Blackbird specimen : adult male

With pathetic frequency our groping hands have left irreparable scars on the beauty we sought to serve. Superhighways, garbage dumps, golf courses, hydroelectric impoundments, cattle grazing, mining and deforesting are only a few of the incongruous and destructive activities we have condoned…

In 1973 Cowan attended a national conference on “environmental impact assessment,” a new concept in Canada at that time, where a case study of the Bennett dam was showcased as an example of a project for which little thought was given prior to construction. The few voices challenging the dam were the people most affected: for example, one of the biggest measurable impacts to a way of life (food and trapping for the Beaver/Cree) was the change in muskrat populations, which dropped from 250,000 before the dam was built to 17,000 afterward. Even with a new federal environmental impact assessment movement beginning, Cowan had this warning about what he felt was already an inadequate procedure: 

The major criticism of our current modes of planning and environmental impact prediction… is that they are piecemeal. They usually consider only one project within a region, or even one aspect of a project… With this approach, it is impossible to do a thorough job of assessing the combined effects of projects, and generally one concludes that the environmental effects of a single project are not very “significant.”…The result is not the ecological “disasters” which make headlines, but a process of slow attrition in which, year after year, project by project, we haphazardly approach subtopia.

Cowan didn’t live to see the greenlighting of the Site C dam, potentially driving one of the final nails in the coffin of this region. 

Ian McTaggart Cowan and Patrick Martin field notes (1938) : Peace River area
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