Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 25: The Rockies 1943

“I was asked by Parks Canada to seek out the facts.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

The last meeting of the ‘B’ during the war was held in February of 1943. Aldo Leopold read the lesson called “The Geese Return,” an anti-war address in which he wrote: “Geese are a semi-annual reminder of the community of the earth; if nations could share ideas as they share the wind, sun and geese, there would be less need of war, and a different concept of peace.” Those close to the corridors of power would have had few illusions about who was benefiting during the war. Lobbying from industry for access to park lands and resources was constant, yet on the other hand, Harkin had worked hard to maintain a national parks ethic – the parks were part of what Canadians were fighting for.

The day he arrived, April 17, 1943, he collected chief warden Charlie Phillips and went to Devona, a lookout over the Athabasca River, to count the animals on one of their most critical winter ranges. Cowan had done the exact same trip his first day in Jasper back in 1930 with warden Frank Bryant when he had skinny-dipped for the lost beaver. Looking out over the landscape 13 years later, he knew that something had gone terribly wrong. The winter range was in bad condition from overgrazing and many of the animals he saw were in as poor a state. Most significantly, most of the animals he was seeing were Rocky Mountain Elk – an ungulate which he hadn’t even seen there in 1930, as it wasn’t reintroduced to the Rocky Mountain Parks until 1931. Cowan spent the next five weeks reconnoitering the easily accessible winter ranges around Jasper and Banff – the Bow, Brazeau and Saskatchewan Valleys – checking out conditions and numbers of animals. He met up with wardens like Frank Wells (who had spent time with him 13 years ago) to collect local information.

Mountain goat 02

Cowan was studying a number of predators: wolf, coyote, black and grizzly bears, wolverine and cougar, all of which were said to have “aptitudes” for killing things. Critics like “Cougar Bill” Fisher claimed cougars were big killers of sheep, yet not much had been written scientifically about cougar behaviour as of 1943. Cowan did know they could be prolific breeders, with no fixed breeding season and a gestation period of only 90 days. He addressed important questions for these dynamic prey–predator relationships, such as whether cougar were a primary factor of shrinking Bighorn Sheep herds. The full picture he was to uncover over the next three years was of a community of animals under siege from much larger forces.

The parks were too small and didn’t include the full seasonal round of habitat for these big prey–predator systems. Big-game trophy hunting was occurring outside every boundary, killing any sheep that stepped outside the parks. Most importantly, low-lying, prime winter range inside the parks was being carved up by roads, railways, town and resort development and hydroelectric projects. What remained was being shared with other domestic or introduced animals, from horses to elk. The populations of Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats were outcompeted, persecuted and vulnerable. Cougar predation was a problem, but to what extent? And was it significant relative to the impacts of industrial interests? A lot was riding on the answers to those questions. 

Cougar 03

At that time, one or two Cougars were being shot every day in BC, for the bounty alone. Even when the bounty for cougars ended in 1956, the legal killing – either by hunters with trophy licences or by wardens dealing with nuisance cats – continued at the same rate. The range of the cougar was also shrinking all over North America, to a few localities such as the Rocky Mountain parks. Wrote Cowan of the predators that summer: “We find that the few direct studies conducted do not indicate that direct predation of one species upon another is so drastic as to threaten the existence or seriously limit any species, as long as environmental conditions are favourable for that species.” 

After coming down from Minnewanka on June 8, 1943, Cowan was to meet a master of the mentoring arts, Jimmy Simpson – guide, naturalist, artist and raconteur. Even in the ’40s he was already a “legend of the Rockies.” He had been guiding parties of hunters, scientists, artists and tourists from English nobility to American movie stars for 45 years before being assigned to Cowan. The two men started by following the Spray Valley, which was a broad river valley with wetlands and rich valley grasslands prior to its flooding in 1950. En route from Bryant Creek (named after warden Frank Bryant) they crossed Whiteman Pass to the summer meadows of Mount Assiniboine on the BC–Alberta boundary. Assiniboine rises nearly 12,000 feet out of an upland plateau, spectacular in its pyramidal form and setting by Lake Magog. Flooding the Spray Valley by Calgary Power, as Cowan knew, would erode populations even further in the southern parks. The lack of winter range put greater stress on the goats and sheep in the higher country, as they had to compete with larger ungulates in the winter which invariably out-ate them.

Rocky Mountain elk calf 02

Cowan and Simpson repeated their observations in the Healy, Brewster and Redearth creek watersheds working their way north. Cowan described their daily routine with Jimmy leading the pack train: “We climbed as high up the mountain as we could get, we worked around the mountain over one ridge and then stop and use your field glasses. You’d lie down and count everything you could see in the bottom there and age and sex them…” At Shadow Lake, in the open muskeg meadows between the clumps of Engelmann Spruce they found Grizzly, Coyote, Marten and Wolverine tracks on the trail. Wolverine had been virtually eradicated around North America and the Rocky Mountains remained one of the last strongholds for these large mustelids. Simpson’s nickname was “wolverine-go-quick,” or “Nashan-esen” in the Stoney Indian language for his prowess on snowshoes. Simpson wasn’t a natural born wolverine-like character or mountain man. Like Cowan, he was born in the UK to an upper middle-class family. Raised in an English market town, thirty-three years before Cowan, they shared an early childhood love of nature. Not surprisingly, the two had mutual respect for one another. “All the things he had been seeing of his life, which he told me as he went along, and it started to come together for him in a pattern as we talked. He was a bright, intelligent man and I loved him dearly.”

Another insight from that trip, perhaps an outcome of his conversations with Simpson, was the importance of long-term knowledge of the individual animals. This was to be the secret to accurately determine the numbers of wolves. The prevailing attitude in 1943 was that wolves were one of the causes of the decline of sheep and goats. Clarke, who had written the earlier studies in the parks, had found that the declines in the sheep and goat populations at Banff persisted despite the wolves being eradicated there. Jasper appeared to still have its legendary packs of black wolves, so why were the populations of sheep and caribou the healthiest in that region of the park? Cowan decided to collect wolf scat to find out. “I had two saddle bags, this one had my lunch in it and the other was full of wolf scats, both in paper bags. So every time there was a wolf scat I had to get off the horse and put it in.” 

Jimmy Simpson on horseback overlooking Mount Southesk (1943)

While on the trail, he and Simpson hatched the idea of getting an accurate census by having wardens keep track of individual wolves over the winters, when heavy snows confined their travel to the valley bottoms. This was one of the first times a zoologist had collected data on the basis of identification of individual animals. “The biggest advances in my lifetime in the field aspect of biology,” Cowan said, “is the knowledge that you could identify individuals and they are just as different as you and I are. I’m not quite sure where it started, but I’m pretty close to where it started.”

The understanding of how individual animals interacted with one another was to completely change the public’s perception of animals. Cowan’s student, Michael Biggs, turned killer whales from being roving bands of thugs to complex kinship groups where matriarchs passed on knowledge and the offspring were raised by uncles and aunts. Cowan’s excitement about the study of individuals stemmed from his first interest in evolution and variation. “We changed biology when we started to work with individual animals rather than populations, because individual animals indicate variation; they give you the stuff of which evolution is built.”

The final leg of the summer took Cowan and Simpson into the country east of Jasper. The trip became one of the most vivid times of both men’s lives. On July 29, 1943, Cowan and Simpson encountered a ram of record size. On August 4, Cowan was to end up at Southesk’s Cairn – the namesake of the Scottish Earl of Southesk. It was Simpson’s 67th birthday. It was one of the high points of both men’s lives.

Jimmy Simpson (1970)
Gray Wolf specimen 03 : male
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