Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 27: Queen Charlotte Islands [Haida Gwaii] 1945-1946

“I have had the saddening experience of revisiting, after the clear-cutter, some areas that formerly supported gigantic spruce trees, clear, fish-rich streams and an assemblage of the birds and mammals found only on these islands.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

The university had been on a tight rein through the war, but with the return of the veterans from overseas, the campus population tripled. Cowan had great respect for the mature men coming into the program. Cowan’s lectures were legendary, often standing room only. It wasn’t unheard of that students would desert their assigned lecturer and sit on the stairs to attend Cowan’s class. The first cohort of veterans arriving at the university was an exceptional one. They were to shape and guide the various institutions – old and new – that were expanding or popping up across Canada: the Canadian Wildlife Service, wildlife and parks departments, universities, museums, conservation organizations. Cowan related that “at one time every province, as far as I know, that had a biology division was headed by one of my students; and at one time so was the head of parks and head of the wildlife service. The information flow was great – there wasn’t much we didn’t hear about.”

Guiguet, Charles J. field notes (1946-1947) : Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands)

Tom Sterling was a typical Cowan student of the time; he had been raised in the prairies and was both a naturalist and a subsistence hunter. Sterling was the beneficiary of UBC president Norman Mackenzie’s “no man left behind” policy. He had met Cowan at the recruiting tables. “So he has been my godfather, along with Bert Brink, ever since.” Sterling did undergraduate work on scoters (large seaducks), somewhat challenging for a prairie boy prone to motion sickness but went on to become the lead scientist with the non-profit, Ducks Unlimited. As Sterling pointed out: “Ian knew that we had enough science right from the beginning, even from the hunters and gatherers… they had science although they didn’t call it that. They knew the habits of the animals, what trails they used, what food they ate, and when they were born and when they bred…” 

Nesting colony of rhino auklet

Another of that veteran cohort was Charlie Guiguet just returned from 48 missions over eastern Europe. Cowan and Guiguet had shared the same mentors from the ‘B’, Jim Munro and Hamilton Mack Laing. Guiguet had been born in the prairies to French immigrant parents and was another “butterfly boy”. The Rocky Mountain research was wrapping up that spring and a whole new research project was opening up – a survey of the birds and mammals of the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) with a special look at the endemic species. Cowan had managed to persuade Guiguet to go by promising that his family could join him up there for the summer.

The Cowan/Guiguet group started with one-day field trips to the Tlell River, and recorded big flocks of Brant, shorebirds, loons, grebes and songbirds in the estuary. Another day, they penetrated “the climax forests north of the village.” Cowan described a forest understorey that was showing impacts from over-browsing from the introduced Sitka subspecies of the Mule Deer. The deer were brought to Graham Island from Porcher and Pitt Islands between 1880 and 1925, and with no competitors or predators in their new home – perhaps an occasional Black Bear – their population exploded. Cowan returned in 1951 to study the impacts specifically and draw attention to the problem. 

Burnaby Narrows on Haida Gwaii

At the old whaling at Rose Harbour they created an encampment and lived off venison. The two men split up and covered the ground on foot for the next week. Guiguet battled the salal to the southeast while Cowan pushed his way west and up into sphagnum muskeg, where he found the endemic race of the Dusky Shrew. Guiguet’s travels led him to signs of an active seabird colony on a rocky headland. The two returned there to investigate the inhabitants of the burrows in the night – armed with spades and flashlights.

With specimens to prepare, Fairbairn turning up a day late posed no problem. The two just had more specimens to load onto his boat. Unlike the trip down, which was calm, they now had tide and wind in their face. They missed the slack high tide at Burnaby Narrows and so had the opportunity to go ashore and observe a famous low tide there. These islands have huge tidal ranges and the volume of water that moves between the narrows of Moresby and Burnaby Islands has created an area of such rich intertidal life that the only limiting factor for an organism is finding room to attach. That day, Cowan recorded an abundance of life.

Ian McTaggart Cowan on a boat, Haida Gwaii (1949)

The summer on the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) raised other interesting research questions for Cowan, which he found no shortage of students eager to solve. Guiguet, in addition to seabirds, picked up the baton on island insularity in mice in the 50s followed by Cowan’s PhD student Bristol Foster in the 60s. Whether islands were inhabited by ancient relic populations of mammals or not, Cowan was less interested in proving his theory than protecting the islands themselves. In 1985 the BC government established the Wilderness Advisory Committee and Cowan submitted two proposals. In both, he advocated the protection of the South Moresby Wilderness area. Foster had been one of the key scientists and behind-the-scenes activists, providing the rationale for the conservation of the South Moresby area of the islands (which reverted to their original name, Gwaii Haanas). He was aware of growing concerns from the Haida, in particular the Skidegate Band, about renewed logging in their traditional territory, which ended in stand-offs by the elders at Windy Bay on Lyell Island. In his role as director of the Ecological Reserves Unit, Foster proposed and created ecological reserves of the seabird colonies and the old-growth watershed of Windy Bay. In 1977 Foster sent a report to Parks Canada that first coined the name for the islands “the Galápagos of the North.” In a letter to his daughter July 8, 1987, Cowan wrote: “The best news this week was the agreement to establish a national park on South Moresby Island in the Queen Charlottes. Many of us have been pushing hard.” The relationships with the islands and activists were not to end there. Cowan and Foster became some of the first naturalist guides involved with ecotourism boats bringing guests into the area starting in the 1980s.

Mule Deer specimen : male
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