Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 23: UBC and Okanagan 1940-1942

“They seem to spend their time playing and every sand dune bears their tracks.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

Cowan skimmed into academic life at the University of British Columbia like a Bufflehead to water. He told the faculty head, Wilbert Clemens, that he wanted to set up the first wildlife program in Canada, in fact at any university. In his very first year on the UBC faculty, Cowan was as busy as he had ever been. There were the two courses to develop and teach (having had less than a month of preparation), while Joyce had the task of dealing with a new baby and house moving. Cowan, as the only instructor, had to cover a lot of new ground and work within a nearly non-existent budget. On the applied side, he was feeling his way in the entirely new discipline of wildlife management. The first intake of students provided him with all the reassurance he sought that the move had been the right one. “These people, you know, were a wonderful group of men and women. There were a few women, you know. The first was a lady by the name of Margaret Merry [later Arsenault], one of my first students, she liked working on the Creeping Vole. That was a break, before that there was nothing but men.”

Cowan was also intent on pulling together various specimens in the university and starting a vertebrate museum, building on his still solid connections to the museum in Victoria. In the course of the first year, his correspondence with the new curator, his colleague G. Clifford Carl, explored the expansion of pilchards up the coast, Bighorn Sheep distribution, the preparation of plant specimens, details of Harlequin skins, the stranded Killer Whales at Masset, Lynx skulls and various fossils of mammals for a paper. He also managed to hunt down the background on a fossil horse tooth. The 1941 correspondence was also full of their collaborations on amphibians and reptiles and organizing their fieldwork for the spring to the Okanagan. They wanted to fill some gaps in the knowledge about Canada’s only pocket “desert” (technically a semi-arid shrub-steppe). Two of the animals they were both interested in were the Spadefoot Toad – an amphibian that had adapted to life in the desert – and the fabled and “ferocious” Pygmy Horned Lizard, which had only been documented twice in BC. 

Western spadefoot toad

They left on May 18, 1941, in the museum truck, heading into the rain-shadow region east of the Coast Mountains. They were successful with the Spadefoots. The description from the first museum guide to amphibians, which they wrote, captured the spirit of those moonlit evenings traipsing across the sand dunes and along the shorelines of the alkali lakes in search of the toads. They were also successful in collecting other reptiles for the museum such as Rattlesnakes, Wandering Garter Snakes and Western Blue Racers, but alas no horned lizards.

After a week around Osoyoos, they moved to White Lake, where they confirmed two pairs of breeding Long-billed Curlews, a species that hadn’t been seen there since 1893, according to Commander Charles de Blois Green who had spotted the horned lizards. Then they moved northward to look at ponds around Westbank and a visit to the Vernon Preparatory School, which would have provided a nice diversion for the dusty camping duo. Rev. Augustine (“Austin”) Clark Mackie, an Anglican priest, was one of the Okanagan fraternity of naturalists that included Jim Munro, Mack Laing, Allan Brooks, Theed Pearse, George Spencer and Pat Martin. This collection of “men’s men” had a regular migration back and forth between the coast and the Okanagan with the same regularity and timing as the Bufflehead ducks Munro had written about. Mackie was known as an avid naturalist, ornithologist (his bird collection was bequeathed to the Provincial Museum) and expert on rattlesnakes. One outcome of the fieldwork was more information on bats. Although we now know that the Okanagan has the greatest diversity of bats in Canada, with 14 summer-resident species, there were notable gaps in knowledge of these mammals then.

Pygmy horned lizard

On June 4, 1941, Cowan and Carl moved camp to Kamloops, Cowan’s old stomping grounds from his first job with the Dominion Entomological Lab, to meet up with George Spencer and Ron Buckell. The two entomologists were keen to team up with the vertebrate zoologist to get access to the lice and ticks that inhabited the birds and mammals Cowan was collecting. They all headed up the dirt track in a downpour to the old schoolhouse–cabin owned by Spencer at Lac du Bois. Bear taxonomy was part of the Darwinian evolutionary puzzle for BC. Getting data on large carnivores that had wider geographic ranges presented the kind of intellectual challenge Cowan relished. He had been researching black bears while in Victoria at the museum, where he had had easy access to the provincial archive rooms next door, run by his friend W.K. Lamb. In the archives were the notebooks of Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor James Douglas, who had kept careful records of every pelt that had passed through his fur-trading forts. When sorted out as to region, each fort’s skins presented graphic evidence of the geographical distribution of the different colours of the bears, i.e., Gloger’s Rule with the drier the landscape, the lighter the fur of the animal.

On that 1941 day in the field, Cowan’s imagination was grabbed when he spotted a black female in traditionally “cinnamon” country. After he had shot her, three cubs appeared: two black and one cinnamon, which he also shot. Cowan was building the vertebrate museum at UBC, so the need to capture “uniqueness” to test dispersal theories was strong. He was also hot on his mission to provide data about predators and their diet. With the entomologists on hand to identify invertebrates in the stomachs, Cowan dissected all four bears. He recorded the stomach contents of the female as three quarts of vegetation, a pint of ants and some larvae. No evidence of domestic cattle, losses of which ranchers were keen to attribute to bears. 

Carl, Cowan and Beebe field notes (1941-1944) : British Columbia

The summer fieldwork in the Okanagan was over but the conservation work all over the province never stopped. For the rest of his long life, Cowan was a tireless advocate for conservation measures in the South Okanagan. He and colleague Bert Brink, also mentored by the “B” both sat on the boards of the organizations that spearheaded conservation efforts: the Nature Trust of BC (established in 1971) and the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund (a quasi-governmental funding organization supported by hunting and fishing licence revenue, which Cowan and Brink helped establish in 1981). Frustrated by government inaction, the two led the South Okanagan Conservation Strategy initiative in 1990, which laid down a five-year plan to protect the critical habitats of the south Okanagan over a large enough area that species would survive.

Meanwhile, back in 1941 in the midst of war, pressures were mounting on the scientists to justify their existence. Cowan was at the front of the cohort moving away from documenting species toward quantification and applied wildlife management. They were working against the ever-present threat of resource-starved governments that demanded an economic rationalization for wildlife.

White-tailed Jackrabbit specimen : female
< Chapter 22: Coastal Islands 1939 Chapter 24: Fraser River Valley 1941-1942 >