Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 29: Chilcotin and the Ashnola 1947-1948

“The function of the university is to help our students… It has been a marvellous place for them. I think Dr. Cowan will agree with me on that.”

– Bert Brink

Sometime during 1947, Cowan and Jim Munro sat down long enough to complete a 285-page manuscript of A Review of the Bird Fauna of British Columbia. Munro was two years away from retirement and was still passionately advocating conservation. It had been 30 years since the two had first corresponded as scientist and scout over Purple Finches and Bewick’s Wrens, whose ranges had changed during all that time. Since 1926 when Cowan first recorded Bewick’s Wren, its range had rapidly expanded as the old-growth forests were cleared and the forest edge and second growth that they preferred increased. Their bird book’s introduction opens with an appeal to conservation, the authors having noted the changes since the last list had been prepared 20 years earlier.

Cowan had done a field survey on Chilcotin Lake with the Racey family in 1931, but Munro wanted to show Cowan some of the other lakes farther to the south where he had worked on nesting birds. The Chilcotin Parklands that lie west of the Fraser are flat to rolling grasslands, and the shallow lakes have rich shoreline vegetation, hence their popularity with so many species. As Munro and Cowan’s book stated earlier that year, the region supported “the largest nesting population of ducks anywhere in British Columbia, including the only known population of the Canvasback.”  

Canvasback nest

Cowan and the whole family – Joyce, Garry, now 8, and Ann, 4 – met up with Munro and other colleagues and students in the summer of 1948. The first stop was Westwick Lake, where Munro had spent some time studying the various grebes during the war. The day they arrived they did a census by canoe and foot and counted well over 150 nesting pairs of Eared Grebes around the mile-long Westwick Lake and its sister, Sorenson Lake. The two lakes, separated only by a man-made causeway, are teeming with freshwater invertebrates. It wasn’t just the Canvasbacks and Eared Grebes taking advantage of the lush conditions: Buffleheads, Shovellers, Blue-winged Teals, Lesser Scaups, Ruddies, Mallards, Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Redheads, Coots and American Wigeons inhabited the lake. Their objectives were to count and band nesting waterfowl in the region to get a sense of their migration and life histories.

For the next month, they surveyed and banded, on foot, horseback and in canoes all through the Chilcotin lakes. Westwick Lake continued to be a favorite hub of Cowan’s in ensuing years, and he would send many of his students and colleagues up there on research projects. Having established a key baseline for the region, the later research projects could document changes in populations and the impacts of encroachment, such as the Western Grebes that had suffered continual declines as recreational and motorized use of the lakes increased and herring stocks on the coast declined. 

California bighorn rams

In 1952 Cowan visited Westwick for a day to check up on students Mary Jackson and Nancy Harris “hard at work” finding nests. He later attended a meeting with trappers to discuss moose. Few could move as fluidly between the ecosystems, genders and species as Cowan. In 1955, at the beginning of May, he drove his grad students Nancy Mahoney [later McAllister], Nancy Anderson, Mary Jackson and Timothy Myers up to Westwick Lake. He had two days to help them get the camp set up and get started on their research. His journal entries for those days are his last entries in his old style of journal format. The handwriting in the journal then shifts to Nancy Mahoney’s on the afternoon of May 5, 1955: “Dr. [Ian McTaggart] Cowan left at 9:30 a.m.” It wasn’t just the handwriting that was shifting; Cowan was handing over the field research to his students, and it was fitting that it was to women.

Cowan continued this tradition by hiring Mary Taylor, a taxonomist and mammalogist, to take over his teaching load in 1965 – an almost unheard-of appointment then for the male-dominated discipline of zoology. Bob Scagel, a specialist in marine algae, spoke of Cowan’s very great interest in establishing research opportunities for men and women students. He and Cowan were responsible for selecting Bamfield, on the west coast of Vancouver Island near Pachena Creek, as the site for a marine research station for the five western universities. Cowan, in his capacity as co-instigator of the National Research Council (now NSERC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council), had helped bring money to the project. By 1972 the doors were open and Bamfield became one of the pre-eminent co-ed marine research education stations on the North Pacific coast. In the late 1950s Cowan’s interest in Westwick Lake as a freshwater research base had also continued. He would be up there again to check on students in 1956 (when he noted three to four hundred Horned Larks) and again in 1959. For the latter trip, he also brought a full television crew from the CBC to tape an episode of the Web of Life

Ian McTaggart Cowan, Edwards, Roger Yorke and Tener, J.S. field notes (1948): Anahim Lake and (1949): Cariboo

The UBC zoology department that year started to offer one of the first PhD programs in the whole university. Cowan’s administrative work just kept growing, since he was also a very successful fundraiser for his students. In 1949 there were no field journal entries for Cowan at all. From then on he would be snatching small blocks of time to check up on students and do small forays close to home with Jim Munro and Pat Martin and other colleagues. After 1949 he was looking for close to home opportunities to bring his family, as well as his students, into the field.

One such chance presented itself with the Ashnola Mountains, a 36,000-acre grassland region south of Keremeos. The Ashnola River is a tributary of the Similkameen. 150 kms from Vancouver, it provided the perfect wildlife field school at which Joyce and the children could join him. It was also perfect for his colleague Bert Brink and his students learning about grassland ecology. Ashnola is unique for many reasons: it is one of the few areas of the province where grasslands are more or less continuous from the valley floor to the alpine; it was a refugium during the last glaciation; but most importantly for Cowan, it was North America’s last stronghold – then – of what was known as the California Bighorn, a population on the verge of extinction.

Bert Brink and Cowan spoke on a television show Nahanni that what they were teaching was an “ecosystem approach” to management.“ Ecosystem management was a new term but an old concept for the ‘B’. Brink and Cowan were probably some of the first scientists in Canada to talk about it on television. They also pointed out the value of the protected areas for recreation and conservation, and then Brink finished with this closing thought: “One of the biggest dividends is the impact on our students. The function of the university is to help our students… It has been a marvellous place for them. I think Dr. Cowan will agree with me on that.” 

Nancy Anderson field notes (1955) : Westwick Lake Camp
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