Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 24: Fraser River Valley 1941-1942

“Our dilemma may become that of the mole in the mating season – with relatively well-formed immediate objectives but no sure idea of which way to go to achieve them.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

The next academic year was full for Cowan getting his fledgling wildlife management course off the ground. He underestimated the “long job” and couldn’t have anticipated Joyce’s third, and again unsuccessful, pregnancy, nor the national war rationing to conserve gasoline that limited his mobility. Over the next 18 months, he stayed close to home, making only short forays with the family to sort out a variety of mammalian mysteries in the Fraser River Valley. His parents-in-law had bought a farm at Huntingdon close to the US border. There were many pairs of Racey and Cowan eyes now watching to record new species moving into Canada from the south, from the cottontail rabbit to opossums. The place was also the epicentre of moles, mountain beavers and other species whose northern boundary was the Fraser. This included five different insectivores that weren’t found anywhere else in Canada: all three of BC’s moles, including Canada’s largest and rarest one, Townsend’s Mole, the smaller Coast Mole and the fossil-like Shrew-mole; and two specialist shrews, Trowbridge’s Shrew and the Pacific Water Shrew. This made nine insectivores in all collected on the farm, once he added in his old friends the generalist shrews, Common, Dusky and Vagrant, which managed to find their way everywhere. Huntingdon farm to this day figures disproportionately as a biodiversity hot spot in the museum collections of Canada. With such biodiversity in just this group alone, Cowan had plenty to keep him busy, and close to home.

Unfortunately, there was far more interest in the economic development of the Fraser River Valley and eradication of moles than in the study of their evolutionary history or well-being – even if they were our evolutionary ancestors. It wasn’t until 1995 that other populations of moles were even found – just northwest of the farm. This precipitated the placing of Townsend’s Mole on the national species at risk list. These somewhat doomed moles earned a place in Cowan’s heart during those years. In 1955, when giving a lecture on the perils of specialization, at a North American Wildlife Conference, he makes reference to the problem in both moles and scientists: “each specialist, burrowing ever deeper and mole-like… becomes isolated in thought from his fellows, who are often paralleling him out of sight. Our dilemma may become that of the mole in the mating season, with relatively well-formed immediate objectives but no sure idea of which way to go to achieve them.”  

Striped Skunk specimen : female

The specialist small-mammal insectivores have not fared well; their habitat has been encroached upon by the rapidly expanding suburbs of Vancouver. One of the last technical review committees Cowan served on was for a survey of Burns Bog, which lies on the southern side of the Fraser Valley, not too far from Huntingdon. The biologists, including Cowan’s student Mark Fraker, found Trowbridge’s Shrew (Sorex trowbridgii), Pacific Water-shrew (Sorex bendirii) and Southern Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi occidentalis) in the unique lowland bog. His testimony led to the altering of the proposed route of the South Fraser Highway to avoid the most critical habitat of the vole. Another mammal that Cowan had “spotty” information about and occupied the region were the skunks — spotted and striped.

He was also launching his public lecture campaign against Canada’s bounty system, not a lightweight issue. There was virtually no public awareness of the problem then, even on the campus of a higher-learning institution such as UBC. It was a situation about which he had a clear opinion: “Oh, this province was pathetic. Every creature that ate anything with meat in it had a bounty on its head…” Cowan’s first radio address, “In Defence of Predators,” was broadcast in the spring of 1942 under the banner of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Cowan developed three strong arguments for the campaign in defence of predators: predators prevent unnatural abundances of prey species; predators keep the prey populations healthy; predators keep rodent populations down, essential in the fight to prevent diseases and impacts on farmers’ crops.

American Kestrel specimen : undetermined female

Working hard with them were two members of the ‘B’, Jim Cunningham and Frank Butler, who were members of the BC Game Commission. Butler established a small group of advisers, which included Cowan, and that group led the policy charge from behind the scenes while Cunningham orchestrated the public lecture series for Cowan at the various clubs and societies. To prove the value of predators, the ‘B’ needed not just a lecture campaign but a high-profile research project. The national parks became the scientific battleground to prove or disprove those claims. J.B. Harkin, the commissioner of Canada’s national parks and co-founder of the ‘B’, had made gallant attempts to bring in the scientific approach to wildlife management. He had faltered and stumbled without a sufficiently high-profile researcher. The ‘B’ knew they had to provide the evidence in favour of predators and they knew the Rocky Mountain national parks were the place to do it. Cowan described how the study was triggered by the infamous letter from Bill Fisher of the Calgary Fish and Game Association, published in Rod and Gun magazine. Fisher and his push for mountain lion and bighorn sheep trophies was not the only threat to the national parks. Calgary Power had been lobbying for years for a dam project on Lake Minnewanka, and suddenly, in December 1940, the Mackenzie King government made an Order in Council under the War Measures Act, executively amending the 1930 National Parks Act to allow the dam. The few concessions Harkin had won against industrial development in the parks during the Depression were rapidly being eroded for “war purposes.” With the gathering storm in Europe, the ‘B’s rear-guard defence of predators was in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountains, Cowan’s star was rising with his new wildlife management course and his quiet-diplomacy campaign. He was also well known for establishing good relationships with the same wardens being lobbied by Cougar Bill who was promising them substantial increases to their salaries through higher coyote bounties. Somebody who could feel their way around the science of predator–prey relationships, uncover the underlying motivations for opponents of the parks and gain the respect of the wardens was needed to continue the fight for the parks – not a job for the faint of heart. It was a major coup that funding for the survey was secured to get Cowan to Banff the following spring.

Western Kingbird specimen : adult male
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