Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 26: The Rockies Again 1944

“It would really take some tall imaginings to keep track of your wandering husband!”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

Registering for Cowan’s zoology class at UBC that September of 1944 was third-year student Jim Hatter. Cowan had first met Hatter as a boy in 1937 at Clifford Carl’s house at the fish hatchery in Cowichan, where the teenaged Hatter hung around. Hatter had lost his father and had found friendly encouragement in the Carl family for his naturalist interests. Cowan too looked out for the boy and had taken him on day trips as a research assistant for his museum deer project. Hatter was to eventually become the province’s first professional game biologist, and in his self-published autobiography he attributes his success to those early mentors. Hater was a natural choice for Cowan to take up to the Rockies for the next research season. Hatter’s job would be collecting coyote scat for his study, which earned him the nickname “Hatter the Scatter.”

Sometime during the height of the warbler migration in 1944, Cowan and Hatter packed up their camping gear and collecting kits and headed for Jasper. They arrived May 2 and Cowan replicated his reconnaissance survey from the previous year, even less happy with what he saw. The park had reached a critical stage of overgrazing by the combination of horses and incoming elk and moose. Then weeks of driving snow and rain hit the two. It turned out to be one of the worst summers for weather in decades. Instead of accompanying a seasoned guide like Jimmy Simpson, Cowan was in turn teacher and adviser to a younger Jim. The only letter that still exists between Ian and Joyce Cowan during this decade contains some of the story of that summer. His comment to Joyce was it would “really take some tall imaginings to keep track of your wandering husband!”

Jim Hatter at Indian pass (1944)

One specimen that Cowan collected was the enigmatic Marten, a small carnivore that ranges from sea level all the way up to timberline. He describes his five hour effort to get the specimen: “However, with a bit of fruitcake, an orange and a chocolate bar in the saddle bags I had not fared badly.” Another enigmatic species in Cowan’s life was the Timberline Sparrow, turning up usually wherever he looked: Newgate, the Rockies and then up in the far north. In the 2001 volume of Birds of BC, Cowan et al. ask the question, “Has it somehow been overlooked because of its secretive nature?” Cowan was ever cautious that some birds were deemed rarer than they really were because people just hadn’t looked enough.

That winter (1944/45), Cowan and Hatter were to return to Jasper with Joyce and the children. The family stationed themselves in a cabin at the Athabasca Lodge and Jimmy Simpson joined them on various days to check out the various winter ranges. After another full but brief spring term and the announcement of the German surrender, Cowan and Hatter were back in the field again. On May 5, 1945, they were ready to start another full season of research, which was to focus primarily on wolves as well as the third-year census of the other populations. Cowan worked in July with Jimmy Simpson and crew through the northern Banff area and the Tonquin region of Jasper. It would be Cowan’s last trip with Simpson, but they would correspond with cards until the venerable old poacher died in 1972. In his will he left an envelope labelled “for Ian Cowan’s eyes only.” In it he confessed to poaching a prize ram on the grounds of the ranger station.

Marten (1945) : Vermillion Pass

With tips from warden Frank Wells, Cowan found two wolf dens of the big pack that had approached Hatter very closely one day. By Athabasca Falls, “We hiked straight east to the wolf den on the lower slopes of Mt. Signal. It is within 1/2 mile of the beaver lodge den.” Descending a short slope, they approached the entrance between two large rocks. “A tunnel measuring 16 inches high by 18 inches wide had been excavated under the largest of the two boulders. It led back about 7 feet into a dry, slightly enlarged chamber that apparently served as the nest.” The Buffalo Prairie den and pack became familiar images in Cowan’s slide shows that he took round to game clubs in his “end the bounty” talks. Cowan had pieced together the movements of the pack, from the wardens’ reports and his own observations over the three-year research period. He did the same with the other packs: Willow Creek, Brazeau Valley, Smoky River and Blue Creek.

On a podium addressing students at the University of Northern British Columbia half a century later, Cowan summed up his research of 1945: “In five years we had the basic answer to our five questions: There were between 35 and 50 wolves in the 7,000-square-mile area. They were in 5–6 packs, each with a finite range. Food was primarily elk, and their impact on the large animals (bighorn sheep, goats and deer) was inconsequential. I wish I had time to give you the details.”

The details were to unfold through five years of reports and articles. Never before had a zoologist described a population of animals as sums of individuals with emerging personalities and relationships; the patterns of their seasonal movements around the territory; the diversity of their feeding habits; their diseases; and the interconnected play among predators, prey, habitat, diseases and the condition of the grasses, wildflowers and soil. 

Gray wolf den
Coyote specimen : male
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